Hear the Angels Sing

A Sermon by Barbara Wells
December 8, 2002
Paint Branch UU Church (Adelphi, MD)

Reading: Edmund Hamilton Sears: A Unitarian Christmas Carol (abridged) by Ken Sawyer

Even in Unitarian Universalist churches that rarely talk about Jesus, we sing Christmas carols. Maybe this shouldn't be surprising: Their popularity in America began about the time a Unitarian minister, the Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear," in 1849.

Sears was the minister of the small congregation in Wayland, Massachusetts. He wrote his famous carol while serving there as a part-time preacher. Some say the carol was first performed by parishioners gathered in his home on Christmas Eve. Another account says he wrote the carol for the Sunday school of the Unitarian church in Quincy, Massachusetts. We don't know where the carol was first performed, nor do we know what tune they sang, since the one to which we sing it now wasn't written until the next year.

Sears' words are both beautiful and powerful. The message is grounded in the first verse in the biblical past. It becomes prophetic in the last verse, which raises yet again the hope of a time to come of peace on earth. But it is most strikingly put in his third verse:

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.

Sears' song is remarkable for its focus not on Bethlehem, but on his own time, and on the ever-contemporary issue of war and peace. Written in 1849, it has long been assumed to be Sears' response to the just ended Mexican-American War. Sears' pacifism would take second place to his commitment to abolishing slavery in the Civil War, but his carol remains, repeated all over the world every year. Probably more than any other Christmas carol, it talks about today–his day or our day. It says that the call to peace and goodwill to all is as loud on any other day as it was on that midnight of old, if we would but listen "in solemn stillness."

Of all the carols that use the Christian story and its language and images, none lifts up a universal human hope more beautifully than Edmund Hamilton Sears' did, singing of the perennial hope of peace.

Sermon: Hear the Angels Sing

The familiar carol, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, is based loosely on the Christmas story found in the Gospel of Luke. In this ancient tale, Luke tells of the angels appearing to the shepherds–words that in their King James English have a power I have always found moving.

For lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David, a savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you, you shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angels a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will to men.

It is a powerful image, one that has been repeated in paintings, stories, and songs for 2000 years. In a small Jewish town in a land far away, a small child is born who is so important that angels appear to herald his birth. And these angels not only tell the shepherds about the child and how to find him; they also bring a great message. The passage ends with many, many angels–a "multitude of the heavenly host"–praising God and calling for peace on earth and good will to all people.

It was this image of the angelic message of peace which seems to have moved the writer of It Came Upon the Midnight Clear to pen his now familiar carol. I can imagine Edmund Hamilton Sears, like me a Unitarian minister, sitting in his study with his Bible nearby, reading again and again the story of the birth of Jesus and being inspired by the tale to write his song. However, unlike most Christmas carols, this one never even mentions Jesus or Christ. Instead, it suggests that the Christmas story, "that glorious song of old" was more about the present than about the past. While the song speaks obliquely of the Nativity, the words are not about shepherds and kings or even Mary and her baby. Instead, they focus on the message the angels are singing: a message of peace and love for all humankind.

As Sears wrote this carol, perhaps he wondered why the world was not the peaceful place sung of by the angels in the Christmas story. In the mid-19th century when this song was written, war and strife were as ever present as they are in our day. At that time, the tension in our nation over the enslavement of millions of African Americans was escalating. Europe continued to see revolution and infighting. Most significantly for Sears, the Mexican American war had been recently fought and won by the United States. Biographers assume that it was this war that Sears was thinking about when he wrote his famous song.

If you’re like me, you are probably pretty ignorant about this war. It’s not one of the famous American wars, perhaps because the reason for it was not as noble as the Revolutionary War or as necessary as the Civil War. The history of it does not paint a great picture of our nation. In brief, when United States President James Polk was unsuccessful in persuading Mexico to sell California and New Mexico to the US, he engaged in a war to take the land forcibly. After two years of fighting, the greater might of the US ensured a win. In 1848, Mexico lost the war and was forced to cede two fifths of its territory to the US for an indemnity of $15 million.

Sears, like many religious people of his day, opposed this war. And, again like many religious people of the day, he felt that the message of Jesus was one of peace, not war. So, even as he imagined the angels singing in Bethlehem, he did not leave them there. Instead, he wrote of them as a continuing presence, with a message still relevant and important for humans to heed.

Hear how he does this in the second verse:

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.

In Sears' day the sad and lowly plains were in the American southwest where soldiers fought over property and money and who would control the resources of the land. Sears, like many Unitarians and Universalists of his day, abhorred the Mexican-American war and the arrogant attitude of America’s leaders toward the Mexicans. Sears is said to have written his powerful third verse with that war in mind:

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.

"O hush the noise, ye men of strife and hear the angels sing." It is a powerful call that was seldom heeded in Sears’ day. Yet here we are, over 150 years later, still singing it. What message would the angels be singing to us if we would only hear?

I’ve thought a lot about this over the past week. I had so wanted to preach a lighthearted holiday sermon about angels for you. This time of year is precious, and there can be so much joy in the wonder of it all. Yet even as I try to stay joyful and open to the season’s magic, I can't help but be saddened by the state of our nation and our role in the world. For we live in a dangerous time, when the song of the angels is being ignored.

And so I found my way to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear in hopes that I could learn again from its message. For my heart is full of sorrow at the strife and war which seems imminent and inevitable.

Today, as most of you are aware, is the deadline for the weapons inspectors in Iraq to complete their job and make their report to the United Nations. For weeks I have been reading of how our country’s president doesn’t believe Iraq, that of course they are hiding weapons, that we must be ready to go to war. While giving lip service to the hope for peace, the message sent out to us from our political leadership is clear: war is coming to the sad and lowly plains of Iraq. We are the righteous ones who will kill, main and destroy the innocent and guilty alike because of course this war is just, of course they deserve to be bombed because aren’t they–maybe–going to bomb us first?

Forgive me if I sound cynical. It’s how I feel. It seems so ironic to me that during this most holy of seasons in the Christian world, people who call themselves Christian seem so willing to go to war. I keep wondering which gospel they are reading. Isn’t Christ supposed to be the Prince of Peace? Isn’t the Christian story supposed to be one that challenges us to love our enemies? Isn’t the song the angels are singing a song of peace?

I am not naïve. I know that the situation in Iraq is complicated and that Saddam Hussein is a dictator. But I also know that the ordinary people in Iraq are not my enemies. They have not harmed my nation or me. They may have the potential to do so, but maybe not. Why does it seem so hard for us to be patient? Why does war seem so appealing to our elected leaders? Don’t they have any idea what war is like?

I do not know first hand what war does to people. I am grateful for that. But people who do know say, with fervor, that war is hell. Even just and necessary wars are terrible.

Yet, it seems likely that we will once again go into battle. And I have moments of despair that there is nothing I can do.

When I feel that despair, I try to hear the voices of the angels. Having never experienced the kind with wings, I have to rely on the more human kind. Angels like Jaco’s childhood neighbor, now a global peaceworker, Elias Amidon, who had the courage to go to Iraq recently and meet the people there face to face. In a recent e-mail he wrote, "Maybe this is why I came to Iraq …to look for a moment into the face of all that is lost in the catastrophe of violence, and then again and again re-commit to life."

Or I think of angels like Phillip Berrigan, who died on December 6, who committed his life to non-violent resistance to war and oppression.

And I think of the angel voices coming to us from the otherwise beleaguered National Council of Catholic Bishops. They have gone on record saying that a war of aggression against Iraq would be unjust. The National Council of Churches in America has also issued a statement, which is strong in its condemnation of war. While there are times when I disagree with this exclusively Christian body, I am grateful to them for penning these words:

We oppose War against Iraq for two basic reasons: 1) In the short run, it will be an act of death and destruction. We choose to follow those tenets in our religious tradition that forbid violence as a way to usher in God's kingdom. 2) In the longer run, it will make far harder the building and healing of the planetary community, which our religious traditions teach.

We are called by our various faiths to be peacemakers, a difficult choice, but the right one. Our opposition to preemptive, unilateral war against Iraq is grounded in a broader vision of national security–one that recognizes that the true threats are more economic, environmental, and social than military. We call on the United States to live up to its own principles and set an example for the rest of the world.

I am inspired by these words from my Christian colleagues. And the good people of the National Council of Churches are doing more than just talking. This Tuesday, they invite religious people of all faiths to join them in a series of demonstrations to show our government that not all of us want to bomb Iraq off the map. Here in DC, we will meet at noon in Farragut Square and march to the White House. It will be a peaceful demonstration of our peaceful goals. Jaco and I will be there and hope some of you will join us.

Our own faith community will also be a part of a silent witness for peace that same day, at 5:30 pm outside the White House. Our president, the Rev. Bill Sinkford, will lead the vigil. There are particulars in your bulletin. I do hope many of you who feel as I do will choose to join us on this important day of witness and protest.

Jaco and I are going because we, like Edmund Sears before us, believe that the message of peace the angels sing of at Christmas is meaningless unless it is heard and sung repeatedly. Sears wrote his carol with the guns of war still blazing in his ears. He knew that in every generation since Jesus was born war and strife have been the norm, not the exception. He knew that the message the angels sang of peace was not heeded time and time again. He wrote his song with the pain of that reality glaring in his mind’s eye.

I love the strong imperative in his verse. "O Hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing." That’s how I feel. I want to cry out to President Bush and others like him to "Hush!" I challenge them to listen to the voices of the angels who do not sing of oil rights and global markets but who gloriously speak words of love and peace. I want them to hear the angel voices that tell us that all children are loved by God, not just American children. I want them to have the courage to do the hard work of peace instead of the easy work of war. I want them to have trust in the possibility of peace instead of the inevitability of war.

Perhaps I am too idealistic. Perhaps I should just face reality and realize there is nothing I can do to stop this juggernaut. Perhaps I should close my ears to the singing of the angels as they cry out for peace. But I cannot and will not. When Sears wrote his carol, he believed in the angels of Christmas and their timeless message. His words did not end war. But they did help me, and others like me over these many years, to listen to the message of peace, and never give up hope.

For Edmund Hamilton Sears was a man of hope. When he wrote this song, he could have ended it with the third verse. But he did not. Rather than leaving us with words of war and strife and the constant inability to listen that we humans seem to have, he left us with words of hope. Here is the last verse taken from the version in our hymnal:

For, lo! The days are hastening on by prophet bards foretold,
When with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold:
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song that now the angels sing.

Edmund Hamilton Sears had hope that someday all humans would not only hear the song of the angels but would learn to sing it as well. He believed that the true gospel message would someday be heard, and all people would find a way to live in peace.

It hasn’t happened yet. Maybe it never will. But this holiday season, as I march against the war and pray for peace, I will give thanks for the voice of one human angel named Edmund Sears, who once wrote a song that still touches us today. And I will have hope that the message the angels sang at the birth of Jesus and to Edmund Sears will be heard again and again and again. Peace on the earth, to all good will. May we someday learn the songs of the angels, and bring peace to our planet. Amen.

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