By Rev. Chris Haynes
Pastor, Hillsboro First United Methodist Church
The middle of the nineteenth century saw a blossoming of new hymns written in the United States. Many of these hymns have Christmas themes and some are still standards for us today. For example: in 1849, our nation had passed through the Mexican-American war but remained mired in increasing turmoil over slavery and westward settlement expansion. Regional tension was brewing and would erupt in a great civil war in a little over a decade. Against that backdrop, Pastor Edmund Hamilton Sears wrote a hymn that expressed his deep longing for peace. His song, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” contains a clear call for peace in the midst of warfare and hope in the face of strife.
The first verse remembers what the angels sang at the birth of Jesus centuries ago: “‘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.” But the next verse brings us to the present day, and reminds us that God’s angels are still bringing a promise of peace to a hurting world that needs to hear that message, now more than ever: “Still through the cloven skies they come with peaceful wings unfurled and still their heavenly music floats o’er all the weary world.” The final verse reminds us that the time will come when God’s plan of peace and love will overtake the world in fullness: “For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophet seen of old, when with the ever-circling years shall come the time foretold, when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”
As 2015 draws to a close, we know that we are not yet living in that time when peace has taken hold for all people. Our nations, our cities, and our families still face strife and division. We live in a world in which violence and terror claim the lives of too many people. Hunger, disease, and poverty are largely preventable, but their specter overshadows millions around the world. Peace and prosperity seem like a distant and cruel taunt for too many people.
Even so, because we still listen for the message of the angels, we are a people of hope. We remember that the angels originally sang to those who also knew the scourge of poverty, the oppression of imperial forces, and the violence of war. Soon after the visits of angels, shepherds, and wise men, Mary and Joseph had to take their newborn son and flee to a foreign land to escape the tyranny of a murderous king. They knew what it meant to live in uncertain and dangerous times, but they held to the message of the angels to carry them through.
This Christmas season, I pray that we may all be examples of love and reconciliation in our world, even when it seems that some people do not want to hear that message. If you find this to be a difficult year, one in which you feel overwhelmed by the problems of the world or of your own life, I pray that you, too, will take comfort in the good news that the angels came to bring so long ago: “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” I pray that the good news of Christ will spark a renewed sense of great joy within you this Christmas!