“It came upon the midnight clear”, 20.12.11

“Pause for thought” on BBC Radio 2’s “Vanessa Feltz Show”

Good morning Vanessa.  I am looking forward, like many people, to all the celebrations and festivities of Christmas, which includes, of course, a bit of carol singing.  But, for Christmas to be more than just a few days escaping from the harsh realities of life, we need to be able to relate the story of the birth of Jesus Christ, and all that means, to our own lives and situations.  ‘It came upon a midnight clear’ is a carol which does just that.  Once you know a bit of the background, it speaks in a strikingly relevant way to our context today – with our daily news of deep economic uncertainty, and uprisings and unrest in so many places.  Let me explain.

It was written in 1849 by Edmund Sears, a Unitarian parish minister who spent most of his ministry at a small church in Wayland, Massachussets.  He was going through a period of ‘personal melancholy’ – brought about in part by the news of major revolutions in Europe in 1848, and the recently ended armed conflict between the United States and Mexico.  The revolutions in Europe had seen crowds gathering in cities thousands of miles apart to demand votes, jobs, new constitutions and human rights.  The mood in London had been so difficult that Queen Victoria was sent to the Isle of Wight for her protection from the unrest.  The 1848 revolutions followed years of economic crises with poor harvests, industrial recession and unemployment blighting the lives of many.

Edmund Sears’ carol was a powerful call to people of his time to hear the Christmas message of hope in a weary world which was full of ‘sin and strife’ and had ‘suffered long’ with ‘man, at war with man’.  He called people to ‘hush the noise’ . . . and to ‘hear the angels sing’ with their message of ‘peace on earth and goodwill to men’.

At the end of 2011 which has seen the Arab spring, summer riots across the UK, and the ‘Occupy’ movements in cities across the globe expressing deep concern at the unfairness and instability of our economic systems, the message of the carol is highly relevant.  The story of the birth of Jesus is not a sentimental fairy tale, but expresses the profound truth that God is with us in all our troubles.  In the midst of all the strife and difficulty of human life God’s love is always at work – if we can but hear the message and let it sink into our lives and shape the way we live.