Happy Advent to you! At Jacob’s Well we are spending this Advent season in a teaching series called Christ Our Peace. In light of the angels in Luke 2 declaring, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”, we’ve been singing a version of It Came Upon A Midnight Clear some this month.
My version here was inspired by a couple of things. The first was an Advent sermon by NT Wright that included a section about this great Christmas hymn.
Christmas is about God acting in the real world. It’s about people like Wilberforce – people who go out into the world and make a difference in the name of Jesus. It’s about people like you. I am praying that God will call several of you here tonight not only to trust him for yourselves, to come to know him in and through his incarnate Son, but also to put your shoulder to the wheel, to work in prayer and faith, and social and political skill, to carry forward the work of the kingdom that was launched at the first Christmas. We need you; we need you both in the ordained ministry and in the active lay work of the church; and we need to stay focused on the task.
That’s why I’m glad that in a few moments we’re going to sing that great hymn ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. It catches the meaning of Luke 2 better than most of the much-loved but essentially escapist carols. All except, that is, for the last verse. Look at it and feel free to correct it in your copy! ‘For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet-bards foretold . . .’ and then, leaving behind the Christian hope and opting for an ancient pagan superstition, it says ‘when, with the ever-circling years, comes round the age of gold’. Well, if you think the ages go round in circles and every so often you get a Golden Age when everything is peaceful and happy, think again; if that were the case, why should we work for it? Why not just shrug your shoulders and wait? That’s Qué Será Será theology – whatever will be, will be. That wasn’t good enough for William Wilberforce; it wasn’t good enough for God, and Christmas proves it. Something needs to be done. Try singing this instead:
For lo, the days are hastening on,
by prophets seen of old,
When, by the Spirit’s mighty power
Arrives the time foretold:
When Peace shall over all the earth
Its promised splendours fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.
(I’m going to ask the Succentor if we can have those words printed next year, but feel free to sing them tonight anyway.) The point is that God will complete the victory gained by Jesus, and that the Spirit is already at work to anticipate that final day. And the way the Spirit does this is quite simple: through you and me.
And so we’ve been singing the revised last stanza and it’s recorded this way on my little demo. My second inspiration is Ella Fitzgerald’s beautifully swung version of the song. Her intro chord change really makes it for me, so I co-opted it. Hope you enjoy!