By Joe LaGuardia
A Pastor Appreciates the Hymns is a series on hymnody and worship in the church. By incorporating personal testimony and theological reflection, the series draws meaning and strength from sacred songs past and present.
So the shepherds went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed” (Luke 2:16-18).
Christmas is a magical time of year. Many people decorate with lights and greenery. Ugly seasonal sweaters are common and unashamedly adorned, and the smell of hot chocolate and peppermint fill the air. There is something communal about the season, and even Black Friday–which stands a week before Advent–has a charm to it as people begin their gift collecting.
Yet, the hustle and bustle of Christmas can be overwhelming and distracting. Just as Christmas gifts collect under Christmas trees, crowding the porcelain nativity and keeping it from view, so too our shopping and cooking rituals–and all the Christmas parties!–can get in our way of remembering the reason for the season. It does not take store clerks and coffee cups to remind us to put “Christ” back in Christmas–we need to do it for ourselves: Don’t worry about putting Christ back in “Christmas”; we should be focused on putting Christ back in “Christian.”
Lessons and carols that we hear and sing during this time draw our attention back to Jesus. In fact, very many of the most beloved hymns of the church are those that we sing at Christmas time. For some of us, that means rushing to church on Christmas Eve–(for others, its the only time to go to church–a travesty, by the way!)–to sing our favorite carols such as It Came Upon a Midnight Clear and Silent Night, Holy Night.
Even then, the more we sing these songs over the years, the more they seem to lose their meaning. (Some songs have words that lost their meaning ages ago: Take The First Nowell, for instance — we have no idea what a “nowell” is!)
We need to take a second look at these hymns too. A deeper look reveals the rich theological tradition that accompanies Christmas, the many reasons why we should be at church and put Christ back in focus. This theology is more than the stuff of a greeting to the grocer or a pithy poem on a Hallmark card, it makes up the difference between a life short-lived and an eternal life well-lived in which God embraces us in the person of Jesus our Lord and Savior.
It Came Upon a Midnight Clear is one of my personal favorites. It is a perfect song to sing in the solemn shadows of a sanctuary on Christmas Eve, an expression that peace comes with the coming Prince of Peace to a world that toils with fragile haste.
This song has everything you might expect in a Christmas carol: Angels singing, heavenly music, peace on earth, ancient splendors, and glad and golden hours. Its invitation to “rest beside the weary road” challenges us to put aside the hot chocolate and the latest fads we purchase for our children, and reflect on Jesus, our Lord.
What makes this hymn so unique, aside from its content, is that it is uniquely American. Edmund Sears, a Unitarian minister penned the poem in 1849, with an emphasis on the work that Christmas inspires–not a work that is toilsome, but one that promotes “peace on earth and goodwill toward” others. This, in opposition to the pain and suffering in a world that is lowly, crushing, and painful.
I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and appointed festivals, my soul hates…Learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:13C-14a; 17).
Oddly enough, Jesus is nowhere mentioned in the hymn. For me, this reminds me of nativities under our trees that are crowded out and hidden by the hullabaloo of Christmas. The angels sing just as we sing, but we need to look carefully and find Christ behind the veil of our seasonal traditions. Christ may not be in the hymn as an explicit Savior, but the hymn affirms that the Savior is present if we slow down and experience the stillness that we only find in that lowly manger. Then, and only then, will our darkness and midnight of the soul become ever “clear.”
All this talk of stillness, silence, and midnight reminds me of another favorite hymn appropriate for Christmas day: Silent Night, Holy Night. Among the most popular of Christmas carols, this hymn comes to us from the darkest pinnacles of the Alps, the very geography from whence our traditions of evergreens and Christmas trees arose.
It was there that two clergymen, Joseph Mohr and Francis Gruber, wrote and scored the hymn in 1818. Silent Night, Holy Night actually came about by accident. Before service, they found the organ broken, and Father Mohr went for a walk to clear his head. On the journey, he enjoyed the silence of the evening and wrote the poem that very night. The next day, Francis Gruber wrote the score with his guitar, and the two men saw it as a gift to the community and the “perfect Christian hymn” for Christmas Mass (Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories, p. 222).
When the repairman came to repair the pipe organ, he took copies of the music and spread it across Austria in his travels. An English translation came two years later at the gifted hands of Episcopal priest John Young (Bishop of Florida), and it became an instant Christmas classic.
People who gather at candlelight services and get to sing Silent Night, Holy Night acapella have experienced first-hand the power of this famous carol. It puts us in the Christmas story, sets us beside the Christ child, encourages us to feel shepherds quaking, and implores us to see that wondrous star that wise men beheld so many centuries ago. Its repetition of the simple refrain, “Christ the Savior is born” is a truth that echoes through the ages and rings deep in our hearts. It is a truth that is personal, yet grand, filling all of creation–if not the entire cosmos–with the beauty of Christ’s birth.
The song is not merely reflective; it also demands a response. In its singing, we are to quake too. We are to receive Christ’s light and love, to look upon his gleaming face and discover radiant beams of a personal relationship with him.
Our response can be spurned by questions: Will the dawn of God’s grace rise in your heart this season? Will you finally push aside the busyness and consumerism that plagues your life that you may be filled with God’s love? Will you come to the manger in silent repose, focusing on Christ, and humbly submitting your life to the Savior born unto us, God with us, Redeemer for us?
Our response can be inspired by shepherds. In The Stories Behind the Magic, Luke and Trisha Gilkerson write:
The song describes the moment when the shepherds stood before the baby Jesus and all was silent. They just stood in awe thinking about the angels and staring into the face of the baby Jesus…How could someone so important be so small, so helpless, so sweet? (p. 47)
So the shepherds don’t remain at the manger; rather, they go and tell others about Jesus. Just as a traveling pipe-organ repairman took Silent Night, Holy Night to churches across Austria, so too does God challenge us to spread the gospel to a land in need.