It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 13.13-15
13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Luke 2.13-14
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Reflection: It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

After graduating in 1837 from the Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Edmund Hamilton Sears settled in as pastor in the country town of Wayland. The church was impressed with his character and preaching and Sears, who never had ambitions for a prominent city congregation, was enamored by the quiet beauty of the little parish.

One can sense parochial tranquility in his most famous hymn.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old…

The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Sears’ family would quickly grow to four children, compelling him to seek out a larger church which could support them. In 1840, he accepted the pastorate of a church in Lancaster, where he would serve for seven years.

The work in Lancaster was difficult and Sears suffered from illness, depression, and an eventual breakdown. Ultimately, his condition deteriorated to the point where he was unable to project his preaching voice loud enough for the congregation to hear.

To facilitate recovery, he returned to Wayland for a year of rest. When healthy, he was invited to return to the Wayland church part-time, which freed him to use his gifts in writing.

In the aftermath of his personal struggles, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” in 1849. At the time, the U.S. was reeling from the Mexican War and struggling with slavery as the Civil War drew near.

His sadness is palpable in the lyrics.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long…

And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring…

Sears’ theology was passionately focused on Christ; he preached “The word ‘Jesus’ opens the heart and touches the place of tears.” He maintained that Christ alone had bridged the great divide between God and humanity.

As a result, he believed that we are responsible for implementing God’s peace in the world, consequently he preached for equality of women and men, opposing killing even in war, and against the evils of slavery.

This work towards peace is reflected in the carol’s hopeful ending.

When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Following his life struggles, Sears managed to find his own peace and eventually a new purpose as a full-time writer. In his most read work, The Fourth Gospel: The Heart of Christ, he writes,

My consciousness at one time may give me an inward sense of moral ruin and disorder. I may see a creation rise out of this chaos… a peace more sweet than the tranquility of the morning… It comes not from inward beholdings of the Deity, but of what He does…

Listen: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear by Over the Rhine
Read: Lyrics at Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Send our your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness; and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God. — Psalm 43.3-4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 10 (Listen – 2:11)
John 13 (Listen – 5:06)

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The God who turned his back, came back. He came to speak peace to the people who had chosen death instead of life.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 12.14-15
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
    see, your king is coming,
    seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Zechariah 9.9
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Luke 2.10-12
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Reflection: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

“The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

‘God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!’

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is among the oldest existing Christmas carols, dating back to the 16th century. It is so iconic that Charles Dickens used it in his classic tale from 1843, A Christmas Carol, as the carol sung by a young caroler attempting to bring joy to the hardened Ebenezer Scrooge.

Changes in language and word usage over time have led to an unfortunate misinterpretation of the opening line and confusion over punctuation. Even Dickens, in his quotation of the lyric, got it wrong.

Contrary to common perception, the song is not an instruction to relax, directed to a group of cheerful men.

In old English, the word rest means “to keep, remain.” The adjective merry had a broader meaning which included “prosperity” and “peace” in addition to “joy.” The comma should properly be placed between merry and gentlemen.

“God rest ye merry” could more accurately be phrased as, “May God grant you peace and joy.”

A great contrast is depicted in Dickens’ scene: the young caroler braving the blistering winter cold to spread tidings of comfort and joy and the elder Scrooge, safe and warm inside, yet with a cold, hard heart, devoid of peace and joy.

The antidote to Scrooge’s downcast spirit would have been found in a later verse, had he let the poor young singer continue.

“Fear not, then,” said the angel,
“Let nothing you affright;
This day is born a Savior
Of a pure virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in him
From Satan’s power and might.”

The comforting message from the angel to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid! I’ve got good news of peace and joy!” (Luke 2:10).

Scrooge was visited, not by angels, but by spirits, and his heart began to soften. When later questioned by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge remembered his error, “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

Let us, like Scrooge, allow our hearts to soften as we set aside our fears this Christmas. Let us actively embrace God’s peace promised to us by the angel on that first Christmas morn.

God rest ye merry, gentle reader, and fear not, for the Prince of Peace has been born.

Listen: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen by Jars of Clay
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org
Bonus Read: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


From John: Just interjecting here to say that as a writer, I was thrilled and nerding out a bit that part of Jon’s analysis of this carol involved understanding the change in meaning that can be made by the placement of a comma. I’ve been so thankful for Jon’s careful and excellent work on these pieces. Readers, God rest ye merry!

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. — Psalm 67.1-2

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 9 (Listen – 3:01)
John 12 (Listen – 6:26)

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We can experience God’s peace in every day and any moment. Hebrews tells us that “we who have believed enter that rest.”

The Wexford Carol — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: John 7.37-28
37 On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.”

Luke 1.46-50
46 And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord
47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has been mindful
   of the humble state of his servant.
   From now on all generations will call me blessed,
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me—
   holy is his name.
50 His mercy extends to those who fear him,
   from generation to generation.

Reflection: The Wexford Carol — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

The history of “The Wexford Carol” is uncertain and complicated.

“The Wexford Carol” is one of Ireland’s most beloved Christmas carols. While thought to be among the oldest Christmas carols still in use, the exact dates of its origin are uncertain.

“The Wexford Carol” was published in 1928, in a collection by William Flood, music director at St. Aiden’s Cathedral in Enniscorthy, County Wexford, Ireland, after he had heard it performed by a local vocalist.

However, the song has also been associated with Bishop Luke Waddinge from Ballycogley, County Wexford, who also published the hymn in his collection in 1684. 

The lyrics supposedly originate from the 12th century, but the rhyme and structure appear to date from the 16th century or later. There is also debate whether the original lyrics were actually Irish or English.

Although tracing the history of “The Wexford Carol” is complicated, the song itself is not, being a joyful recounting of the night of Christ’s birth.

Good people all, this Christmas time,
Consider well and bear in mind
What our good God for us has done,
In sending His beloved Son.

The pregnancy of Mary was uncertain and complicated.

A young, simple Jewish girl is found to be pregnant under mysterious and uncertain circumstances. Claims of an angel’s visit and divine proclamation. A fiancé who receives a nocturnal, angelic intervention. 

Likely scared and confused, young Mary hurries off to another town to seek advice from cousin Elizabeth. When Elizabeth is prompted by the Holy Spirit to confirm the miraculous Divinity growing in Mary’s womb, Mary proclaims her joy, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”

Although the pregnancy of Mary was complicated, her ultimate response to God is not, being a joyful acceptance of the role she has been given to play in the divine drama.

With Mary holy we should pray
To God with love this Christmas Day;
In Bethlehem upon the morn
There was a blest Messiah born.

The times in which we live are uncertain and complicated.

The weight of a global pandemic, the stress of political strife on every continent, disparities of power and economic status, all loom large in our collective consciousness, not to mention the personal and specific struggles each of us face on our own.

Although our lives and times are complicated, our response should not be. Let us rejoice along with Mary. Let us take joy in knowing that our lives are secure in the hands of God. 

Within a manger He was laid,
And by His side the virgin maid
Attending to the Lord of Life,
Who came on earth to end all strife.


Listen: The Wexford Carol by Yo-Yo Ma & Alison Krauss
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org
Bonus Listen: Magnificat (i.e. Mary’s Song) by Keith & Kristyn Getty

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. — Psalm 85.9

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 4 (Listen – 1:53)
John 7 (Listen – 5:53)

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Good Christian Men, Rejoice — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: John 5.24-26
24 “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself.

Luke 1.31-33
31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.

Reflection: Good Christian Men, Rejoice — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

There is a fascinating story behind the origins of the nearly seven-hundred year-old Christmas carol, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.”

The original text of this hymn, “In Dulci Jubilo,” was written by German mystic and Dominican monk, Heinrich Seuse, sometime in the early 1300s. Folklore relates that Seuse had a vision in which he heard angels singing the words of the hymn and upon hearing them, he joined with the angels in a dance of joy.

Good Christian men rejoice
With heart and soul and voice!
Give ye heed to what we say
Jesus Christ is born today!
Ox and ass before Him bow
And He is in the manger now
Christ is born today!
Christ is born today!

Seuse’s biography states:

Now this same angel came up to [Seuse] brightly, and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must cast off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion. Then they drew [Seuse] by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus.

Who wouldn’t want to sluff off their sufferings and sorrows and dance with an angel choir in reckless abandonment and joy?

While Advent marks the beginning of the church’s liturgical year, it is also providential that this season falls at the end of the calendar year. For it is this period in which we are often most reflective and contemplative about life and the experiences of the previous twelve months. In some years, such as this one, the exercise of remembering can be disheartening.

Therefore, we need joy.

We need to dance.

We need to be reminded of the one who has borne our suffering and sorrow.

We need to choose to embrace true joy, even in the midst of difficulty.

The original version of “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” is one of the oldest examples of a macaronic hymn, a song text in multiple languages, in this case both Latin and German. Because of this, later Reformers would use this hymn and others in congregational singing. Since worship services of the day were conducted in Latin, the German vernacular in hymn texts served to proclaim truth to the largely uneducated common folk.

What truths does this carol proclaim? Wherein is found our joy?

Jesus Christ was born today!

Jesus Christ was born for this!

Jesus Christ was born to save!

In light of this good news, let us all rejoice with heart and soul and voice!

Listen: Good Christian Men, Rejoice by Smalltown Poets
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
My lips will sing with joy when I play to you, and so will my soul, which you have redeemed. — Psalm 71.23

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 2 (Listen – 1:41)
John 5 (Listen – 5:42)

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Read more about He Rejoices Over Us — Love of Advent
Zephaniah looks forward with joy to when Israel’s purpose would be fulfilled in God.

Angels We Have Heard on High — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: John 4.28-30, 39
28 Then, leaving her water jar, the woman went back to the town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” 30 They came out of the town and made their way toward him.

39 Many of the Samaritans from that town believed in him because of the woman’s testimony, “He told me everything I ever did.”

Luke 2.15-18
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.

From John: I personally have been very much looking forward to the next two weeks. Jon Polk has always been one of the key sources in my life to learn about unique music and artists worth discovering. He is a music connoisseur and collector with a massive collection of music, both on his shelves and in his heart. I know you will be blessed by his exploration of the carols of Advent.

Reflection: Angels We Have Heard on High — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

Whenever I recall the familiar passage from Luke chapter two, I cannot help but hear it narrated from the classic words of the King James Version in the voice of philosopher and theologian, Linus Van Pelt.

“Lights, please. ‘And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night…’” (Luke 2.8)

The grandiose birth announcement proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds is one of the iconic images of the Christmas story. What Christmas pageant doesn’t feature a couple of shepherds in bathrobes and an angel in a white baptismal robe with a glorious, gold glitter halo?

Of course, this portion of the nativity narrative also forms the basis of many of the carols of Christmas. You may recognize one of the favorites as the “Glo-o-o-o-o-o-ria” song.

Angels we have heard on high
Sweetly singing o’er the plains,
And the mountains in reply
Echo back their joyous strains.

“Angels We Have Heard on High” is an English paraphrase of a traditional French Christmas carol, “Les Anges dans Nos Compagnes” (literally, ‘the angels in our countryside’), by James Chadwick, Roman Catholic Bishop of Hexham and Newcastle, England. The flourishing chorus, “Gloria in excelsis Deo,” is Latin for “Glory to God in the highest,” the first line proclaimed by the gathered angelic host in Luke’s nativity account.

Picture the scene. Shepherds in the countryside somewhere out beyond the edge of the city. Tired, weary, and worn out from the day’s work, but they still must take shifts watching the sheep overnight. Their occupation places them on the lowest rung of the first century social and economic ladder.

Everything changed for them on that fateful night when they heard that first “Glory to God in the highest!”

Shepherds, why this jubilee?
Why your joyous strains prolong?
What the gladsome tidings be
Which inspire your heavenly song.

Joy. Radically transforming, immense, unmistakable joy. These shepherds, normally social outcasts, are now the first ones to be privy to the good news of great joy. What do they do after they find the baby? They head into town to spread the joyous news! 

Look for those around you who need a little joy this year. Spend some time this Advent season spreading joy however you can. We can all provide an encouraging word, a helping hand, or a few extra moments of our time. Like those early shepherds in the countryside, we carry a joy that is designed to be given away.

After all, in the words of Linus Van Pelt, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”

Listen: Angels We Have Heard on High by Future of Forestry
Listen: Les Anges dans Nos Compagnes by Bruce Cockburn
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
On this day the Lord has acted; we will rejoice and be glad in it. — Psalm 118.24

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 1 (Listen – 3:37)
John 4 (Listen – 6:37)

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Jesus went out of his way to reach out to those who were considered unreachable, and more than that, unworthy of being reached.

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