One of the Christmas songs we do not sing tonight is “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Up until this year, I was mostly familiar with the first verse, which says, “Peace on the earth, good will to men,” and “The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.” Those words have always felt more like an aspiration than my reality. I do not know about you, but the holidays are rarely a time of stillness and peace for me.
But this year, I stumbled on a verse of this song that is not in our hymnal. The verse says, “And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!”
One of the challenges about Christmas is that we can sometimes lose our place. When we listen to the old carols, we either hear songs of peaceful silence or we hear songs of beautiful, glorious praise. The same is true of our secular experiences of Christmas. We are filled with retouched nostalgic memories, with songs that tell us we should be rockin’ around Christmas trees, or cozying up with loved ones. But sometimes Christmas is none of those things. Instead Christmas is a time when the gap between our reality and the projection of all the things we should be feeling grows ever wider.
I think that is why I was captivated by this extra verse of “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” “And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!” Suddenly, the otherworldliness of the angels are there for us too. Whether life feels like a crushing load, whether your daily toil is bringing you down, or whether you are just weary, the song invites us rest by the weary road – because the angels have a song for us too.
I used to serve at a church where Christmas was the pinnacle of events. Families would wear evening gowns and tuxedos to church, they would send their servants to reserve rows of seats, and the coat rack was full of fur coats. Christmas was another soiree in their perfectly formed lives, and church was host of their glamorous party. But what always amused me about that experience was the contrast between their polished, perfect lives, and the rustic, imperfect story of the angels and shepherds. I wondered if they understood the ironic contrast of their experience and scripture’s experience. What did they know of being crushed beneath life’s load, the toil of taking painful, slow steps, and the weary road?
Not until many years later did I realize that the weariness of life can infect anyone. Those in tuxedos and evening gowns were struggling with broken marriages, estranged family members, and the grief of death as much as someone gathered in a candlelit historic chapel. Those whose servants went to reserve a seat in church were just as lonely, unfulfilled, and afraid as those who are servants. Those whose fur coats lined the coat racks were experiencing a sense of failure, a lack of fulfillment, and a longing for meaning as much as someone slipping quietly into a service like tonight. Weariness affects the donkey who carries a pregnant Mary; the shepherds who keep watch all night; the innkeeper who feels pulled in many directions with no vacancies to accommodate need; with Josephs who are on a path they did not choose, but who feel obligated to be faithful; and with Marys who say yes and hold hope, even though the dread of impending suffering is almost palpable.[i]
You see the angels came not to a perfect world, to a perfect people, delivering perfectly good news. The angles came to a weary world, with weary people, delivering good news that would not dismiss our weariness, but relieve our weariness. That is why I love this service so much. I love our Blue Christmas service because Christmas is all about a wearied people, with a crushing load, with painful steps, welcoming a savior who gives us hope that we will not be weary forever, that God will walk our weary roads alongside us.
On this night, I share this blessing for all of us: “May the world slow down enough this season for you to catch a glimpse of a star in the sky and a light on the horizon. May the earth pause enough for you to catch the faint sound of a baby’s cry on the wind and the song of the angels through the trees. May the slow time of Christmas night bring joy to you, and hope, and light, and more than anything else, rest to your waiting spirit. All you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low, who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow; look now, for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing; oh, rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing!”[ii] Amen.
[i] Melissa Bills, “All This Weary World,” December 18, 2018, as found at https://youngclergywomen.org/all-this-weary-world/ on December 18, 2018.