The middle of the nineteenth century in America was a volatile time:
- In 1848, the United States concluded a controversial, costly, and casualty-heavy two-year war with Mexico. The Mexican-American War cast a dark shadow over the nation.
- By 1850 the Industrial Revolution had enticed multitudes of people to exchange their marginal rural lives for even more marginal city lives, swapping one kind of poverty and insecurity for another.
- When gold was discovered in California in 1848, hundreds of thousands of American men joined the California Gold Rush to pursue the fantasy of striking it rich, leaving women and children to fend for themselves.
- Reverberations of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe were unsettling our government as well as the millions of immigrants to America whose relatives were suffering in their homelands.
- Opposition to slavery in America was increasing from a simmer to a rolling boil that would soon spill over into a war between the states.
These national storm clouds were reflected in the lives of individuals as well, people like Reverend Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts. Though he was a Unitarian, he personally believed in the deity of Jesus Christ and found refuge in his faith at a difficult time. After a trying period in his ministry, he suffered a breakdown. During the dark night of his soul, as he looked around at the state of his nation, he longed for there to be peace on earth, goodwill to men—and peace in his own soul as well.
That was 1849, the year Reverend Sears put pen to paper and poured out the longing of his heart in a long poem of five stanzas. He wrote about a “midnight clear” when the world had once “in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” He described the “weary world” he witnessed and its “sad and lowly plains” over which heavenly songs from angels were needed. He described the “sin and strife,” the “two thousand years of wrong,” and “life’s crushing load”—and how badly the world needed to hear from “heaven’s all-gracious King.” But he concluded in hope: “When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.”
His poem became the beloved Christmas carol, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” an annual favorite of Christians around the world. He focused his hymn on that “midnight clear” when the angels announced to Bethlehem’s shepherds the birth of the baby Jesus. It was the angels’ message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” that Edmund Sears longed to experience both nationally and personally.
It is no surprise that he wrote his hymn in the Christmas season (it was first published as a poem on December 29, 1849). Christmas, more than any other time of the year, is the season that gives us clarity about life. If the angels appeared to the shepherds on a “midnight clear,” then Christmas is our annual “season clear”—the time when we are able to see what is most important in our lives.
If 1849 motivated Edmund Sears to long for a more peaceful life and world, how much more has 2015 said the same to us? And if we have felt unsettled and concerned all through this year, how much more does Christmas give us clarity about the only Person who can bring peace on earth and goodwill to men—including at the personal and family level?
In this issue of Turning Point, we will speak to the subject of clarity at Christmas—how and why Christmas can be a time in which we see everything in the glorious light of the birth of Christ. Because Christmas involves giving and serving, it reminds us of the One who came to serve and give Himself to the world. When we remember what He has done for us, we are reminded to do the same for others.
Christmas can be a maze of commercialism if we let it. Instead, let’s make it a moment of clarity in which we view our sometimes confusing and threatening world against the backdrop of God’s gift to us: the Prince of Peace who was announced by angels on that original “midnight clear.”
BY DAVID JEREMIAH
It Came upon the Midnight Clear