Christmas relies heavily on stereotypes. We have the stereotypical Santa, the stereotypical elf, and our well-worn images of the holy family in the manger. Chief among the Christmas stereotypes are the angels. The angels appear in white, winged, and sporting halos. In our more contemporary renditions of angelic glory, one usually finds a person in a bed sheet, wings that appear to be robbed from an over sized Muppet, and a halo created from pipe cleaners or clothes hangers. If we go one step further with our angelic imagery, the heavenly messengers might be playing harps. Where on Earth has this strange hodge-podge of faux togas and heavenly harps come? One culprit is the well-worn Christmas hymn, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”.
In the second line we read, “From angels bending near the Earth, to touch their harps of gold.” The angels bend “near” the Earth (never coming too close) to touch their harps of gold. They don’t want to come to close to Earth, only near enough to play these overpriced instruments in such a way that we, who live and dwell in the Christmas chaos may hear their joyous words. Here’s the thing. Edmund Sears, the man who wrote these words, was big on the world being solemn and still in the days leading up to Jesus’ birth. “The world in solemn stillness lay,” and the opening stanza, “it came upon a midnight clear,” all point to a world of total peace and tranquility. We got the impression of shepherds and others waiting for the cosmic pin to drop, so the real celebrations could rightly begin. How silent and still was a young woman going into labor? What were the sounds of Jesus’ cries, Mary’s pain, and Joseph’s worry? Could he have been more wrong? Unlikely, I say.
Has the hymn ever taken a long hard look at the reality of Christmas? It’s a cauldron of stress, fatigue, obligation, noise, and constant activity. In the way we lead our lives, there is nothing solemn or still about the modern American journey toward Christmas. Is this because we’ve taken the Christ out Christmas? No, it’s simply how we live 365 days a year. We are a culture which thrives on image over substance. Christmas is list of yearly traditions and manufactured obligations we’ve convinced ourselves must be done in order to have something we believe represents an ideal we’ve never really encountered. Christmas doesn’t look like the world presented in “It Came upon a Midnight Clear”. Hymn such as this tell the story of a sanitized world, a “Silent Night” which never existed. Their lyrics point us to staged recreations (sometimes in our minds and often in nativity scenes) of an event which looks nothing like the reality we claim to remember or want restored to our collective psyche. In a world full of turmoil, chaos, and pain we’ve sung ourselves into a complacency which fits our expectations and deepest desires. We meet a Jesus who will not challenge our complicity in the cultural marathon called Christmas (circa 2014). We encounter an infant who seems light years away from challenging our beliefs about the poor, the weak, the hungry, and the sick. We sit in church and sing words that don’t match the reality of Christmas because these songs are the weigh stations we use to measure how much Christmas resides in our souls.
I will sing “It Came upon a Midnight Clear” in church over the coming days. I will stand behind my pulpit; ask my congregation to turn to page 218 in the United Methodist Hymnal, and sing from verse 4, “The whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” In the back of my mind, I’ll be saying, “Yes, Lord, I want to send back this song and exchange it for a new one.” I want to send it back so we can sing of Christmas as it is not as someone wanted it to be. Is that the right thing to do or think? I don’t know. I’m an ordained United Methodist clergyperson and I’m not sure I know how to do Christmas “right”. I’m not certain what Christmas is supposed to look like. My guess, however, is that it doesn’t look like what we think we’re celebrating.