Sounds of the Season

     If you’ve read my blog posts in the past, You know that I have a tendency to include a song at the end of each. Usually my process is to pick a song that fits the theme after I write my thoughts; however, I make an exception this month as we have officially (having celebrated Thanksgiving) entered the Christmas season. I would consider myself a Christmas junkie, due in large part to the music of the season. Within the Christian world, we are graced by some of the greatest hymns of the faith during this month, and trying to pick one to center a blog around is no easy task for me.

     Today however as I’m writing this, I am listening to a Christmas hymn that I think I have settled on. Ironically, it isn’t one that I have always liked. The one pitfall of Christmas hymns is that they sometimes lean a little heavily into the idyllic Christmas manger scene, and not into reality (did baby Jesus really not cry at all as “Away in a Manger” would have us believe). I always assumed that “it came upon a midnight clear” was one of these songs. Without much attention to the lyrics, I had assumed from the name that it painted an ideal little manger scene on a clear starry night, and I had little interest in it. However, when I listened to it I found one of the most robust and poetic reflections on the history of the Bible’s redemption story, and I wanted to share it with you along with some of my own reflections on it.

     The song is a poem about songs and sounds. In its second verse, it reflects on the tower of Babel and the city of Babylon. In Scripture, Babylon represents the constant state of our world under evil rulers and unjust kingdoms. Babylon is everything humans do to seize control and power that brings disorder and pain. It is our current reality. Reflecting on the act of God confusing their languages and creating a chaotic jumble of indiscernible racket, the writer of the song, Edmund H. Sears, represents our world as a constant cacophony of loud and chaotic noise: Babel sounds.
Still through the cloven skies they come
with peaceful wings unfurled,
and still their heavenly music floats
o'er all the weary world;
above its sad and lowly plains,
they bend on hovering wing,
and ever o'er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.
     It’s in the midst of this Babel sound that the song starts. The author of the song chooses to focus on the angel songs found in Luke as a stark contrast to the chatter of our usual Babylon. He describes the Birth of Christ- the beginning of the Gospel of Jesus as a moment of Solemn stillness, as if for just a second the noise has ceased, and in Christ a new song- a song of the kingdom of God, has been heard. Perhaps you have been struck by the beauty of a new song and had to stop whatever it was you were doing to listen. This is the image that the hymn conveys the birth as being.
It came upon the midnight clear,
that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth
to touch their harps of gold:
"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.
     It’s in the latter three verses of the hymn that we are brought into the present and future. Despite that we remain surrounded by the chatter of Babel, the song reminds us that Christ has come, the Gospel continues to bring hope, and that the song of the angels has not ceased. It challenges us in our own day to hear the song, and going further, it looks toward the future. It reflects on the Day when Heaven and Earth will be reunited. In that day, the song of Heaven won’t be any different than the song of Earth. With evil purged and the Babel sound silenced, the song ends by reminding us that one day our world will join in the song. The restored creation will become the harmony to the Angel’s original Gospel melody, and we will experience life not in the chaos of Babel, but in the beauty of the fully realized kingdom of God that the prophets hoped for.
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
And 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.
O rest beside the weary road,
and hear the angels sing!

 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.
     So what implications does the song leave us with as it reflects on the beginning of the Gospel and the birth of Christ? I think it leaves us with the question in the coming days of what song or sound your own voice joins. Consider your talk and actions this Christmas. Our claim is that the advent season is the reminder of when Jesus, the true king, came to live among us and inaugurate his kingdom on Earth. He has reconciled us to God and redeemed us from death. Yet so often, our talk merely joins the babel. Was our thanksgiving filled with political discussions of Earthly kings? Will our Christmas season be filled with laments about our own stresses and frustrations? Will our actions be harried and frantic as we try and fit everything we can into the coming days? Will we be combative and fearful of “the war on Christmas” as some pundits would push us towards? I would suggest that all of this simply contributes to the Babel sound that the songwriter.
     All of these are so normal to us, and yet advent calls us to something different. As we approach Christmas, we ought to fill our days with the song. We are citizens of the Heavenly kingdom- we have already tasted the goodness of the redeemed creation in Christ. This should cause us to fill our hearts, mouths, and hands with words actions (and perhaps even literal songs) that do nothing less than celebrate and proclaim the lordship of Jesus, and the refreshing reality that God, in Christ, has reconciled us and showed his commitment to making his home among us. All of these things offer us rest and completeness beyond imagine, and as we enter advent, I hope that we will reflect that goodness with a song of our own.
Unfortunately I have had the hardest time finding a version of this hymn that I liked that also included the final 2 verses, so for now, here is the classic Christmas voice of Burl Ives… You can fill in the final verses

Dan Vandzura