On a Midnight Clear

On A Midnight Clear
Homily For Christmas Eve 2010 (c)
Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa

Reading:  The missing 4th verse from It Came Upon The Midnight Clear

O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

I do not know why the fourth verse of this Unitarian hymn was removed from our hymnals when the Unitarian and Universalist congregations consolidated in 1961.  It is the only verse that is not so lofty in metaphor or universal in its wording but rather personal and intimate.

Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, a Unitarian Minister, wrote this song in 1849 while serving a congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts. According to the biography found at our denominations website, this song was written during a period of personal melancholy coupled with news of revolution in Europe and the United States War with Mexico still grieved the heart.  So this verse that we no longer sing is one of personal triumph rising up over despair.

In the years preceding the secession of the Confederate States, whose 150th anniversary Alabama and other southern states are about to celebrate, the country was in looming darkness. There were heated debates in Congress regarding formation of free and slave states.  Secession and civil war was avoided during these years but the intensity of the argument made it all inevitable.

The desire for justice where all are welcomed to live free in this country faced the opposing dark clouds glooming on the horizon just like the clouds we are facing today.  The times are different, sure, and exact parallels do not exist but the desire for justice for immigrant families torn apart have similar dark clouds swirling to whisk them away.  The desire for justice for the working class faces another menacing dark cloud of corporate manipulation and greed.

It was in times like these that Edmund Sears wrote his now famous hymn asking, pleading for the world to hear the Christmas message.  The times are dark and foreboding and depending on whether one listens to MSNBC commentators or to Fox News commentators, how dark the times are vary in shade and hue.

So what is this Christmas message that gave hope to Rev. Sears?  The late Rev. A. Powell Davies writing in 1944 in what is now considered a classic Christmas sermon; “Christmas Always Begins at Midnight[1]” offers this clue:

“The hardihood of this festival, continuing, as it has, through many thousands of years, and rising, stage by stage, from primitive frenzy to pagan jubilation and finally to the symbolism of Christian observance, gives us true cause for confidence and reassurance. When it is darkest, man celebrates the light. When the earth is most desolate, he carols his joy. When the harshest and bleakest of the seasons is upon him, he can turn to gentleness, kindness and forbearance. His courage can rise superior to his circumstances.

“Perhaps this is the thought above all others that Christmas can cheer us with this year. It is the inner significance, the spiritual essence of Christmas that can mean most to us, for once. For certainly we shall not find it easy to be spontaneously happy in a world so full of miseries. Nor should we. … If we are to celebrate the ancient festival of light overcoming darkness, it must be in the full knowledge of how dense is the darkness against which the light must shine.”

In the dark times that Rev. Davies is writing, we did not yet know what the outcome of World War II would be.   Neither, do we know what the outcome of our country’s leaning to corporate plutocracy will be.  Nor do we know the influence of conservative radicalism will have on our constitution where debates of repealing the 14th[2] and the 17th amendments[3] are growing.  And who knows where the tenth amendment is going to end up regarding state’s rights, an issue not resolved since its passage in 1789.

We are also in dark times, just like Rev. Davies, just like Rev. Sears.  They found hope in this season.  We can too.  Listen again to how Rev. Sears found it.

Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.

It is in looking for those moments of joy, those moments of victory of justice where we gain hope for the future.  And when that is not enough we pause, we rest, and we listen.  Rev. Sears says to hear the angels sing.  As far as I know, the voices of angels are inaudible these days, so this listening is a deep silent listening of the heart.

The best moment I have had to describe this is when I had a personal crisis in my life, a moment of decision of great consequence. I took the time to walk silently in the woods and came across a pair of swans swimming in a pond.  The water surface reflected like a mirror and the swans glided through that water with no disturbance or ripple.  I stood there and listened for the sound of the swans swimming. There was comfort in that moment of listening to these angels.

And while no decision was made that day, I believe that pause that I took, that resting beside the weary road to hear the angels sing, laid the foundation for me to make that decision which ultimately set me on the path towards ministry.

Again, words from Rev. Davies’ sermon: “the truth  [is] that man must find his faith, not in the daylight but in the dark. If he is ever to come to the light of morning, he must carry his own light with him through the night. Yes, and not only so, but he must make his songs in the darkness, too, and sing them first at midnight.”

This time of the year is a holy time in part because it is in darkness that new life begins; a seed sprouts in the darkness of soil, a new life begins in the darkness of the womb.  It is in darkness that we begin our journey towards the light of day. It is no small coincidence that our ancient ancestors in the northern hemisphere have chosen this time of year when darkness is at its zenith to celebrate the light and with that the hope for new life.  For people of faith that light of day is where love and justice abounds.  Blessed be.

Published in: on December 25, 2010 at 1:20 pm  Comments Off on On a Midnight Clear  
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