If you know me at all you know I am a big fan of Christmas music. According to the iTunes file on my home computer, I have 2,086 Christmas songs and it would take four days and seven hours to listen to all of it. Care to guess the Christmas song of which I have the most different versions?
· God rest ye merry gentlemen – 27
· Have yourself a merry little Christmas – 31
· Jingle Bells – 32
· Silent Night – 57
You may be interested to know carols have been around for thousands of years. The first are sung at pagan celebrations of the Winter Solstice. Early Christians begin to supplant this ancient tradition with one of their own. By the year 129 A.D. a bishop directs a song called Angel’s Hymn is to be at a Christmas service in Rome. This new tradition continues to grow and expand over the centuries, but by the Middle Ages people lose interest in Christmas altogether. St. Francis creates a revival in celebrating Christmas in 1223 when he begins to stage Nativity Plays throughout Italy. These productions include songs and canticles and with this Christmas carols begins to spread throughout Europe once again. Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan regime put an official stop to caroling in England for a brief period of time, but even then the faithful meet in secrete to sing. The Victorian era sees a resurgence of caroling which has grown and expanded undiminished to our own time.Singing, it seems to me, is the language of Christmas. Dr. Seuss knows this because after the Grinch steals all the presents and holiday trappings from Whoville, his heart melts when he hears the undeterred joyfully residents signing carols. The tradition of singing at Christmas dates all the way back to the chorus of heavenly hosts on the holy night of our Lord’s birth. I wonder what it sounded like. And I wonder why only a few shepherds hear it. Surly the radiant throng singing praise to God has some heft to its volume. So why do only a few people hear it? Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister of the 19th Century, might suggest this as an answer: only the shepherds hear because they are the only one’s listening. Everyone else is asleep or distracted.
Edmund Sears is thought to be the author of the first Christmas Carol written in America. Titled The Angel’s Song, it first appeared in print on December 29, 1849. We now refer to it by its first line, “It came upon a midnight clear.” At the time he writes it, Sears is troubled by the outbreak of war in Europe while America is still recovering from its own costly conflict with Mexico.
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, good will to men,
from heaven’s all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
to hear the angels sing.
We understand Sear’s longing for peace on earth and good will among all people. It is timeless, as deeply desired today as it was 168 years ago.
In his carol, Sears contends angels continue to sing in our own day, but we are not listening:
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 blessed angels sing.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world hath 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.At every celebration of the Eucharist, we join our voices with angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven who forever are singing a hymn of praise to God, so I think Sears is on to something. Ever hovering over our world, the heavenly host continues to sing the message of Christ’s birth – peace on earth and good will. It is a song too few hear because too few listen for it.
Regrettably, the fourth verse of the carol is omitted from our hymnal. It speaks directly to each person who is burdened and worn out by life; to every person on the verge of giving up and giving in:
And ye, beneath life’s crushing load,
whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way
with painful steps and slow,
look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!I think one the reasons I love Christmas music is because, as Sears suggests, it has a power to rejuvenate, to remind us of our better angels, and to rekindle a hopeful, heaven-born dream for our time. It is why we love so dearly to come to this place on this night and sing.
Sears concludes his carol with a conviction one day the angels’ song will be heard and sung by everyone.
For lo! the days are hastening on,
by prophet bards foretold,
when, with the ever-circling years,
shall come the Age of Gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
and all the world give back the song
which now the angels sing.
Tonight I invite you to listen for the angels’ song, to let its message fill you with joy while instilling in you abiding hope for the day to come. I invite you to welcome God’s peace into your life and encourage you to extend good will whenever and wherever possible. I invite you to listen to the angels in the pews around you as we sing. And I invite you to sing yourself.
Let me leave you with a verse by Mildred L. Jarrell:
Let us have music for Christmas…
sound the trumpet of joy and rebirth;
let each of us try, with a song in our hearts,
to bring peace to all on earth.