It came upon the midnight clear, That glorious song of old, From angels bending near the earth, To touch their harps of gold: “Peace on the earth, goodwill to all, From heaven’s all-gracious King.” The world in solemn stillness lay, To hear the angels sing.Still through the cloven skies they come, With peaceful wings unfurled, And still their heavenly music floats O’er all the weary world; Above its sad and lowly plains, They bend on hovering wing, And ever o’er its babel sounds The blessèd angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife The world has suffered long; Beneath the angel-strain have rolled Two thousand years of wrong; And man, at war with man, hears not The love-song which they bring; O hush the noise, ye men of strife, And hear the angels sing.
For lo!, the days are hastening on, By prophet bards foretold, When with the ever-circling years Comes round the age of gold When peace shall over all the earth Its ancient splendors fling, And the whole world give back the song Which now the angels sing.
This hymn was written in the United States of America by the Unitarian Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) and first published in 1849. It made its way across the Atlantic in the 1870s, where it soon became a popular hymn, and in the UK is almost always sung to the tune Noel written by Arthur Sullivan.You can hear a recording of it here
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’
This hymn is not really based upon any particular passage of scripture, but reflects the song of the angels in Luke 2:14. The Companion to Rejoice and Sing notes a number of classical allusions, which suggests an element of naivety.
The Christmas story, of course, is full of naivety. This may be the only Christmas carol we sing regularly which does not mention the birth of Christ. Edmund Sears wrote this hymn after the Mexican-American War, and in the midst of the social strife that plagued the United States before the Civil War, and it is clearly a prayer for peace, which is needed today as much as ever.
We are on a weary road, and there is much disparity of wealth, many prejudices, and our planet is damaged and in danger. Although we do our best to counter the craziness, despair can sometimes get in the way. But in this season of Christmas, the shepherds of our imaginations will again quake with astonishment, while we fear to suggest that angels and peace might be the whimsical stuff of plays for innocent children. The last verse of this hymn turns the traditional nativity play upside-down with a dream of radical transformation. It not only conjures a vision of angels singing over our “Babel sounds,” but asks us to imagine a day when the people of earth will sing a song of peace back to the angels.
And on this day, midnight brings another resonance, as 2017 ends and 2018 begins. May our prayers be for the earth to sing a song of peace in the New Year.
God of peace, we ask your forgiveness for all that has gone wrong in this past year, knowing that you are a God of love and mercy, and that you are always ready to forgive where regret is real, and offer a new start. May we be willing to begin a new year with a clean slate, and willing to forgive ourselves and to forgive one another. Remind us of our truest values and our deepest desires. Help us to live in the goodness that comes from doing what you want us to do. Help us to put aside anxiety about the future and the past, so that we might live in peace. Amen.
The Revd Michael Hopkins, Minister of Farnham and Elstead URCs, and Clerk of the General Assembly