It came upon my midlife clear: A reflection on Christmas hymns and Christian hope

Issue 2021, vol. 75

The first Christmas album played every year in my childhood home was Guy Lombardo and His Royal Canadians Sing the Songs of Christmas. Our mother, with her more refined musical taste, preferred Christmas Hymns and Carols by the Robert Shaw Chorale. But we kids loved Guy Lombardo best. We loved it because it featured a chorus of children’s voices — and because the bi-fold album cover opened out, revealing the song lyrics. Upon getting home from school in the afternoons leading up to Christmas break, I would put that record on the phonograph, sit on the couch with album cover in hand and sing along with the big band orchestra and children’s chorus. Over the years I came to know by heart every song, with every scratch and hiss, on that beloved vinyl disc.

The first song on that album is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” As I listened, my child’s imagination filled with awesome, wondrous visions of “angels bending near the earth” from the night sky above “to touch their harps of gold,” while below “the world in solemn stillness lay.” That image was my only impression of the hymn for many years, however, because the album included only the first verse.

Two decades later, I began my sojourn among peace church people when I joined a Mennonite congregation. In this context, I discovered the rest of the hymn through the then-recently published Hymnal: A Worship Book, a collaboration of Brethren and Mennonite denominations.[1]

The latest season of my nation’s war-making had begun in the wake of 9/11. The angels’ song that sounded in the hymn’s first verse — “Peace on the earth, good will to all” — gained a fresh and stronger resonance in my mind. That song, the second verse assured, still “floats o’er all the weary world” — and the ear of my heart strained to hear its strains. The third verse named the reality I had come to know: In a world beset by “the woes of sin and strife” and burdened by “two thousand years of wrong,” the angels’ song falls on the closed ears and hardened hearts of “warring humankind.” I yearned, with the hymn, for the whole world to “hush the noise and cease your strife” and “hear the angels sing.”

At the time, interestingly, I checked the hymnal I knew from childhood. I found this hymn but noticed it lacked the middle verse about the wrong and war in our world. This was no anomaly. I recently made a comparison of hymnals at the website and found that about nine of ten containing this hymn lack the middle verse. Many Christians, it seems, would rather avoid singing about humankind’s persistent penchant for war during the church’s (and culture’s) celebration of Christmas. In this respect, I appreciate the peace church tradition for keeping before us the truth that the gospel of peace is announced amid a world at war.[2]

Another two decades on, I am hearing this hymn again with fresh ears. What I most notice now is what I do not hear in the hymn.

The hymn’s first and second verses resound with the angels’ song from the Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel. They even acknowledge “heaven’s gracious king” whose message of peace the angels convey. Yet in Luke, the “good news” the angel announces to the shepherds bears a specific message: “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).[3] The angels from heaven sing of peace on earth because the God-sent Savior, Jesus the Messiah, has been born in Bethlehem.

It thus came upon my midlife clear: This Christmas hymn elides Jesus from the Christmas story!

My concern grows as I read on. The fourth verse calls our attention to those whose bodies are “bending low” under “life’s crushing load,” who “toil along” with “painful steps and slow” a “climbing way” rutted by injustice. The hymn promises these oppressed: “glad and golden hours” are coming soon, so “rest beside the weary road” and “hear the angels sing.” Whence will this “glad and golden” time come? The fifth verse prophesies a fulfillment of the promise: the “age of gold,” which “prophet bards foretold,” will come around “with the ever circling years,” when “peace” will spread abroad its “ancient splendors” and “the whole world” will echo the angels’ song.

According to this hymn, the angels’ “glorious song of old” is about a mythic “age of gold.” It imagines history as a cycle of ages, and it anticipates the return of a long-lost peace of a long-ago age brought back by the revolving sphere of time. Although invoking the Christmas story of Luke’s Gospel, this hymn replaces the biblical story with an alternative one. Despite acknowledging the king of heaven, this hymn’s hope is not in a heavenly intervention, much less a divine incarnation, to save humankind and establish peace.

By contrast, Zechariah’s canticle in Luke’s Gospel, known in Christian tradition as the Benedictus, proclaims a message of hope for salvation and peace. This song proclaims that “the Lord God of Israel” has “raised up a mighty savior for us,” in fulfillment of the promises God made through “his holy prophets of old.” Zechariah sings that “the dawn from on high will break upon us,” a new day “to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,” a divine light “to guide our feet into the way of peace” — all brought to be “by the tender mercy of our God” (Luke 1:68-70, 78-79).

Zechariah’s canticle grounds hope for peace in what God has done through Israel and is doing through Jesus the Messiah for our salvation. Rather than a once-upon-a-time storybook hope about a fabled age, biblical-story hope is anchored in God’s truthful words to our ancestors and God’s faithful acts in our midst — the “wonders and signs that God did through [Jesus] among [us],” of which we are witnesses (Acts 2:22, 32). And this hope anticipates the heavenly dawning of a new age — Christ’s return to judge the nations and reign in peace, God’s kingdom without end.

The course of my years has brought me to a more sober estimation of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” It proclaims peace but no gospel. It proclaims no gospel, no good news, because it does not proclaim Christ — neither Christ promised by prophets nor Christ come at Christmas, much less Christ coming again to bring God’s kingdom. Because it does not proclaim Christ — the one who “came and proclaimed peace” and “is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14, 17), who “made peace through the blood of his cross” (Colossians 1:20) and through whom “we have peace with God” (Romans 5:1) — it does not even truly proclaim the peace of God.[4]

Why does this matter? As Alan and Eleanor Kreider observed, “Our songs and hymns are important. We may talk theology, but we really believe what we sing. … What we sing is what we internalize. … Let’s choose wisely what we sing, because we believe and become what we sing.”[5] What we sing, at Christmastime and at all times, matters to what we believe and what we proclaim, who we are and how we live as Christians.

Singing of peace on earth while omitting Jesus born to bring us peace fosters envisioning an earth at peace apart from faith in Jesus. Singing of hope for the world while omitting God coming into the world fosters conceiving a humankind eventually saved of its ills without need of God. Such a song shapes a people who believe and live as if salvation were a goal achieved by human intents and efforts rather than a gift received from a gracious God, as if peace were found in the procession of history rather than in the coming of God. Such a song may name the world’s fallen state and even express humankind’s need for salvation and the nations’ desire for peace. Yet the hope of salvation and peace it offers will fall short of the full hope in Christ, the only hope that can satisfy the heart and rectify our world.

Even hymns that acknowledge God or Jesus can fall short in this respect. Consider the popular peace movement song, “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me,” which appears in several hymnals.[6] This hymn, which acknowledges a heavenly Father/Creator, envisions “the peace that was meant to be” coming about by our willing peace and working for peace. Or look at the more recent hymn “God of the Bible,” which appears in the newly published Mennonite hymnal, Voices Together.[7] This hymn acknowledges “God always faithful” and “God in our struggles,” “hope seen in Jesus” and “hope yet to come.” Yet it envisions a changed “world order” coming to be, “[n]ot by” God’s faithful action to put the world aright nor by Jesus’ hoped-for reign of justice and peace, “but by” our intents and efforts to create “new systems” and kindle “new lights.” Or what about another recent hymn, “How Can We Be Silent,” also appearing in Voices Together.[8] This hymn acknowledges that “God has conquered death” to give us new life, that “Jesus rose” and “will come again in glory” to end “suffering and strife.” Our knowledge of God’s action and Jesus’ example, the hymn’s verses proclaim, motivates our deeds of mercy and justice to “heal and serve” the “poor and broken” and inspires our worship and praise of God. Yet the hymn’s refrain, while testifying to “the Spirit burning now inside us,” declares boldly: “We will shape the future.” Even acknowledging God’s death-conquering, Jesus-raising action for our salvation, after professing the unstoppable power of the Holy Spirit working within the church, this hymn asserts that “we” will fashion our world’s destiny.

Singing such songs has practical implications for the church. Singing of peace on earth apart from faith in Jesus fosters fashioning campus peace programs that separate making peace on earth from proclaiming salvation in Christ. Singing of hope for the world apart from God’s coming kingdom fosters forging mission endeavors that disconnect promoting reconciliation among peoples in conflict from calling all humankind into reconciliation with God through Christ. These projects may proceed with good will and may produce good things. Yet, however successful, even the best of human intents and efforts will still leave the world hungering and thirsting for what the world truly, deeply needs.

Realizing this has prompted me to reexamine the implicit messages in Christmas hymns. After all, Christmas hymns are — or should be — gospel proclamations. As does Zechariah’s canticle, some classic Advent and Christmas hymns do proclaim the good news of God’s salvation and peace in Christ.

“O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” which derives from a medieval Latin text, is often sung during Advent in preparation for Christmas. In its common English version, this hymn’s first verse bids Emmanuel to “come” and “ransom captive Israel” from its “lonely exile,” while its refrain summons “Israel” to “rejoice” in the assurance that “Emmanuel shall come to thee.” The hymn’s final verse names the “envy, strife and quarrels” that roil and rend our world — and bids the “Desire of nations” to “come” and “bind all peoples in one heart and mind” and “fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.”

Who is this Emmanuel, this God-with-us, whose coming will redeem Israel and right the world? The hymn’s intervening verses ground Emmanuel’s identity, and thus anchor our hope, in God’s covenant with Israel and God’s promise of a Messiah. Emmanuel is the “Rod of Jesse” who will “free thine own” from the “tyranny” of sin and Satan, and will “thy people save” from “depths of hell” and “the grave”; the “Key of David” who will “open wide” the gate to our “heavenly home” and “close the door to misery”; the “Lord of might” who in “ancient times” on “Sinai’s height” gave “the law” to Israel.

Whereas “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” reflects on God’s covenant with Israel, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Charles Wesley’s magnificent hymn, focuses on Jesus, whose birth fulfills God’s promise of a Messiah. As do the angels in Luke’s Gospel, the first verse of Wesley’s hymn proclaims, “Glory to the newborn king” and “peace on earth.” It then declares the condition and content of this peace: “God and sinners reconciled.” The third verse calls us to “[h]ail the heaven-born Prince of peace.” Again, it goes on to elaborate what the Prince of peace has done for our salvation: “Mild he lays his glory by, born that [we] no more may die.” These proclamations about peace and salvation frame the second verse, which attests to the divinity and identity of the one whose birth and death reconciled us to God and has saved us from death by giving us a new birth: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail the incarnate deity! Pleased [he is with us] to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.”

In my midlife years I have found another favorite Christmas album that I now usually play first every year — The Light Shines: Songs and Carols for the Christmas Season, featuring Kim Thiessen, a project supporting the work of Mennonite Central Committee. The foregoing reflections tell me why.

The album opens with “We Come,” a contemporary song by Jim Croegaert, a Christian artist with Catholic roots and Mennonite connections. Recalling Augustine’s well-known prayer that opens his Confessions — “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you”[9] — this song begins by acknowledging our deep need for God: “Our hearts are empty without you, barren and cold… .” It then stakes our hope for salvation in God’s grace to us: “…but for the bold hope that you yourself planted within.” The refrain is a prayer that articulates our yearning for God’s presence: “In the mighty name of God, in the saving name of Jesus, in the strong name of the Spirit, we come, we cry, we watch, we wait, we look, we long for you.”[10]

The album continues this theme with two classic carols, “O Come Divine Messiah” and “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus.” Penned by M. l’abbé (Simon-Joseph) Pellegrin, an 18th-century French Catholic poet and playwright, “O Come Divine Messiah” depicts a “world in silence” that “waits the day” when “hope shall sing its triumph.” In this hope, the song earnestly entreats the “[s]weet Savior” to “haste, come” to “dispel the night” and “show Thy face.” Who is this Savior, whom “priests and prophets foretold,” who will “break the captive’s fetters” and “redeem the long-lost fold”? The one who “comes in peace and meekness,” “[a]ll clothed in human weakness,” in whom “we the God-head see.”

“Come Thou Long Expected Jesus,” another beloved hymn of Charles Wesley, begins by petitioning Jesus, “born to set Thy people free,” to “come” again and give us the “release” and “rest” that will rectify our situation of slavery in sin and satisfy our deep need for sabbath wholeness. Echoing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” the first verse goes on to confess that Jesus, whose coming we expect, is both “Israel’s strength and consolation” and “hope of all the earth,” both “[d]ear desire of every nation” and “joy of every longing heart.”

These songs get it exactly right. Within a world awaiting its redemption, we watch and wait for God — who created us in God’s image, who called us to be God’s people, and who has already come to us and will come again in Jesus, God with us.

As it happens, this album includes, near its end, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”[11] Even now, I hear that hymn in sympathy with its lament of war and longing for peace. Yet, while still affected by its pathos, I am no longer enchanted by its mythos. Christian hope for a warring humankind at peace and a broken world made whole lies not in human intents and efforts to change ourselves or this world, much less in recycling a mythic golden age, but in the long expected coming of the divine messiah.

[1] Hymnal: A Worship Book (Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press; Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press; Scottdale, Pa.: Mennonite Publishing House, 1992), no. 195.

[2] This hymn had appeared, with the middle verse, in The Mennonite Hymnal (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press; Newton, Kan.: Faith & Life Press, 1969), no. 126.

[3] All Scripture quotations taken from the New Revised Standard Version.

[4] It thus does not surprise me to learn that the hymn’s writer, Edmund H. Sears, was a Unitarian minister.

[5] Alan Kreider, Eleanor Kreider and Paulus Widjaja, A Culture of Peace: God’s Vision for the Church (Intercourse, Pa.: Good Books, 2005), 109, 111. The Kreiders wrote the chapter from which this quotation is taken.

[6] Authored by Jill Jackson and Sy Miller. In, for example, The United Methodist Hymnal (The United Methodist Publishing House, 1989), no. 431, among other hymnals.

[7] Authored by Shirley Erena Murray. In Voices Together (Harrisonburg, Va.: MennoMedia, 2020), no. 420.

[8] Authored by Michael Mahler. In Voices Together, no. 790.

[9] Saint Augustine, Confessions, trans. by Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 3.

[10] Jim Croegaert, Cries and Blessings (Evanston, Ill.: Rough Stones Music, 1998). Refrain from David Adam, The Open Gate: Celtic Prayers for Growing Spirituality (London: SPCK, 1994).

[11] The hymn is also included in Voices Together, no. 248.