It came upon a midnight clear
I have always loved, loved, loved the hymn we just sang: It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. The lovely, almost haunting melody is one that I can hear again and again. Sometimes the melody can obscure the solemnity of its message: that upon a midnight clear came the answer to human need, human struggle, and human crisis that had never found a true rescue or release. Verse three sings, “Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long; beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled, two thousand years of wrong; and warring human kind hears not the tidings which they bring …” Sometimes the Christmas miracle that escapes us is the utter blessing that God breathed into the long-suffering, needy world when He came down at Christmas in Jesus, the Christ child. We have recycled, in our human living, many of the same problems: war, greed, the lust for power of many kinds, and all the while, knowing – somehow - that we were missing the point of it all. The final part of verse three tells it: “… O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.” Christmas, wondrously, calls us to listen to the rushing sound of angel wings as God announces to the world His love, power, and determined decision to save us. Christmas is here and we are invited to acknowledge, without holding back now, the wonder and hope of God’s present and overwhelming light and love.
Do you remember the wonder of Christmas morning, as a child? I certainly do. My parents were people of limited means so we always got one “big” or major present and a few other little things. I remember, when I was about 11, I wanted the Evel Knievel Scramble Van which had a little cranking device that allowed my brother and me to launch the Evel Knievel action figure and his motorcycle across ditches, ponds, and down steps. We did get distracted that year, I think, trying to cook bacon in one of my sister’s Easy Bake Oven. But for us, as children, there was a breathless wonder to wait and see what Santa had brought. The night before, we gathered around after church, my parents, brother, and three sisters, and took turns, each year, reading Luke 2, the Christmas story, the Nativity. Then, the following morning gave way to the excitement of presents. And then, along the way, we lose this excitement, and Christmas, as we get older, if we are not careful, can become a chore to be endured and survived, not a blessing to behold. The strife of the world, the challenge of the holiday season, the financial obligations of life, and so much more can bear down on us with the weight of the world. And the magic of Christmas can be lost.
Two thousand years have passed since the coming of Jesus, the Christ, in Bethlehem. Two thousand years since the King of Kings and Lord of Lords was proclaimed by the angels and would grow up to heal, teach, and minister to tens of thousands if not more. He was claimed by the forces of the world and crucified and buried. But the magic, the hope, the reality of God’s love would not end there. Resurrection solidified the real hope that has become, for us, the greatest story ever told. Two thousand years …. we have waited, hoped, and expected Jesus’ return.
Come, thou Long expected Jesus, we sung during Advent. “Yet with the woes of sin and strife, the world has suffered long ...” The excitement of the early Christian community at the expectation of Jesus’ coming has given way, in much of the world, to despair, anger, a desire to get one’s own at the expense of all others … we no longer hear the flutter of angel wings, only the sound of our own groaning. The poorer we are, the more disenfranchised we are, the more acute the feeling that Christ has come but there is no reason to expect that he will come again.
So, we must take ourselves back to that Christmas long ago, with a young mother, a father, and a baby in a barn or cave, without a place to stay. No Evel Knievel Scramble Vans or Easy Bake Ovens anywhere in sight. Mary had trusted that, through her, God would fulfill his promise to His people – to save them from their sins, poverty, and give them hope. She held onto this promise, in the face of certain scorn and a challenging path forward, because she believed that God keeps promises. Mary utters a song of praise to God when she realizes that she is going to give birth to Jesus, the Son of God. And that ability to be joyful in the face of danger, disappointment, and pain is really much of what Christmas is about. God came down to us at Christmas and we are the recipients of God’s continuing and ever-present love.
The world struggles because our attention is mostly following the thing of the moment. But God calls us to cast our eyes and hearts back to Bethlehem, back to the stable where Jesus lay, a vulnerable, innocent child. The Holy One who would transform the world has come into this world. Our awesome God, understanding that we were and are heaving under a heavy load, broke into our world and gave us the privilege of taking care of Him. God, in the form of a baby. We did not do a very good job; we handled the love of God fairly carelessly and, sadly, we often still do. Yet here He is, still waiting, still loving us, still pointing us to become vulnerable, as the baby Jesus, and live into the promise of His love.
There is such grandeur in our Christmas hymns in the Episcopal Church. They have a gravity, a beauty, a scale befitting the Son of God. We sing of “Angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.” So, the grandness of God was not lost on the authors of our beloved hymns. And, yet, when all the music stops, and we sit in silence, we hear the essence of God’s great gift: the cry of a baby; God’s willingness to become like us, for the salvation of the world. God appeared, with the angelic chorus, not to kings, not to princes, not to the powerful ruling class. He appeared to shepherds, the poorest of the poor, tending their sheep, even during the night. He appeared to an unmarried woman, Mary, and to her faithful suitor, Joseph. He appeared to simple fishermen, tax collectors, and other even more dubious characters. God came, God comes, in the person of Jesus, the baby, the Christ, to each of us, regardless of our station. The flutter of angel wings can be heard, if we have imagination enough, faith enough, and a hope in our hearts that God will keep His promises to us, this night, and always. For tonight, we can bask the grandness of God, for God is great and powerful. Let us celebrate and rejoice that the long-expected Savior has arrived. Not as a king, not as a person of power, not as Evel Knievel, even. He comes, a God who loves us beyond all telling; who goes to the heights and depths to save us – as a vulnerable baby. Let us take care of this gift that is Jesus Christ; he doesn’t need, though He does desire us. But we, who have suffered long, need Him.