#10 "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" (music: Richard S. Willis, lyrics: Edmund H. Sears)
This is the only one of the fourteen hymns to be in 6/8 time (although not the only one to be in six). And I have a confession to make: I told you yesterday that "O Little Town of Bethlehem" was the only one of these hymns to use the word "years," but here we are literally one day later, and the phrase "ever-circling years" comes up in verse three. I led you astray, and I'm sorry. The word has a different meaning here, though. In the last hymn, it reflected millennia of looking forward; here, it refers to a time long after the nativity. We'll get there in due time, but I think it's interesting that so many Christmas hymns address the Second Coming in conjunction with the First.
As with many of these hymns, we have angels, and they're singing to us about the infant Jesus. "Peace on the earth, good will to men from heav'n's all-gracious King," they say, and not just the shepherds, not just the magi, and not just Bethlehem, but the world "in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing." The hymnal directs us to sing "brightly," but the gentle, quiet way in which the Tabernacle Choir sings the hymn in the video at the end is how I picture the scene. There were animals and strangers in the manger with Joseph and Mary, but I imagine there was reverence, too.
In the second verse, we sing that "still [the angels'] heav'nly music floats o'er all the weary world," and there's not a word in that phrase that wasn't well chosen. We're no longer singing about the nativity, but about our own time. We live in a weary world, jaded and indifferent toward the things of the spirit, and yet the angels sing on, their words and notes floating over the world to anyone who cares to listen over the "babel sounds" trying so hard to drown them out. There are distractions enough to fill an ocean, but the choice is left to us whether or not to bend an ear to hear the music floating by.
The third verse, as I mentioned earlier, brings us to His Second Coming, in which... well, I'll let the hymn speak for itself:
For lo! the days are hast'ning on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heav'n and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.
The word "ever-circling" is an apt description of our attitude toward the divine, I think. We all go through phases of waxing and waning spirituality, and it's always the same things that have drawn us away from and toward the Lord over the ages. There's nothing new under the sun, and those same distractions are ever-circling. Only once He comes again, the cycle will be broken. He will reign personally on the earth (remember "Joy to the World"?) and both heaven and earth will become new. And through all of this, just as they have in ages past, the angels still sing the same song, only now, the whole world joins in with them.
Peace on earth, good will to men from heav'n's all-gracious King.
Previously in this series
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks