As many of you know, I quite like modern art, sculpture, poetry. I like things that use just a few words or an image to convey a huge range of meaning and mystery, and which touch our hearts rather than our minds. For me, the words of this carol are in that arena – they are poetry rather than prose, art rather than technical drawing. It’s unusual amongst carols in that rather than drawing the scene in the stable, with the oxen and the straw and the tiny baby, or even painting a skyline over a town, it doesn’t mention Bethlehem at all. Instead, it gives us a huge vision, a healthy dose of reality and then the eternal message of hope, which is really fitting on this fourth Sunday of Advent.
The carol begins with a vision: the vision of a beautiful night sky illuminated not with stars but with the gold of harps and the song of angels. This is the kind of beauty we associate with the mystery that is God, God who is immeasurably more than we can ever imagine or know. This is the beauty that whispers – or shouts – to our hearts when we see a sunset or a bird on the wing, watch the ocean or see the world in a raindrop. It is also a generous, abundant vision, because the angels still come, as in a few words we are drawn into a sense that they are beyond number, speaking of God’s unlimited, extravagant love for us. In the first two verses we are being called far beyond ourselves into worship and astonishment at the message of the angels.
But this carol is underpinned with reality – the reality of disappointment when we turn our eyes away from the heavens, come back down to earth and realise just how difficult and dull it all is. Its’ a bit like when you return from a holiday – do you remember those? – and life seems ordinary once again. But this is more than ordinary reality: it is a response to extra-ordinary times. For the carol was written in response to war and its impact. It was written as a poem in 1849 by William Sears, a Unitarian Minister in Massechusetts, and first sung in 1850 to a tune specially written to go with it. I like the idea that it was sung in a home, with parishioners gathered round a piano, aware of the noise of strife in their lives and in the world. In Europe, the tune we know, [memorably called Noel], was written about 1874 by Arthur Sullivan – the one of Pinafores and Pirates fame. I like that he wrote a handful of carol tunes too.
Reality hits in many ways – and that might feel especially true this Christmas. But reality hits in our Gospel reading too. Mary’s story is not one of perfection, all neat and tidy. It is the story of a God who speaks into ordinary, messy lives. This year, it might feel harder than ever to hold on to the glorious vision and promise of the Christ child in the manger. The great song of the angel can seem far removed from broken relationships, unemployment, anxiety, grief, let alone pandemics and lockdowns. Yet this carol names that disappointment: there is a mismatch between the scene in the stable and the world we live in.
I suspect the carol would have failed if it had stopped there. But Sears lifts our eyes up again, as he returns to the great Advent hope that goes beyond the stable to the day when Christ will return, and all things will be healed and reconciled. He calls us to pause and listen well in the weariness of real life and hear the angel-song again, as Mary heard it too. This is the hope at the heart of Advent, that the day will come when ‘peace shall over all the world its ancient splendours fling”, and the whole earth be filled with the glory of God.
The carol begins with vision, names reality and fills us with hope. It reminds us that after 2000 years we are still part of the story, still waiting, but still listening and learning to live out the song that the angels sing. We live it out in our prayer for the world, in our campaigning for righteousness for others, in our acts of kindness, and in our worship.
Where will you pause to hear the angel song this week?
Rev Dr Sandra Millar