“Peace on the Earth, Goodwill to Men”
“‘Peace on the earth, goodwill to men / from heaven’s all-gracious King’ / The world in solemn stillness lay / to hear the angels sing.”
Several years ago, I saw a dramatization of the birth, life, and death of Christ. While I did not agree with all of the liberties that this particular film took in its portrayal, the movie did open my eyes to the social and political context of Christ’s day. I live in the United States, so it is hard for me to read the nativity account and intuitively comprehend the ruggedness and conflict of Israel’s culture at that time. But that film opened my eyes to the less-than luxurious circumstances that most people lived in, the very real presence of a less than benevolent government, and the anxiety and fear of the day.
In a way, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” which Edmund Sears wrote in 1850, seems to romanticize Christ’s coming with its ethereal lyricism. But I also think that this Christmas carol’s reflections offer the promise of peace to a weary world in a way that is incredibly poignant and relevant. They are like a clean and cold mountain spring to a worn and hot traveler.
The shepherds who received the angels’ tidings of Jesus’ birth likely did not enjoy a sense of confidence in the goodwill of their fellow men. They endured inclement weather due to the outdoor nature of their profession, experienced poverty, and felt societal unrest along with the rest of the Israelites. Peace did not characterize their situation.
Ricky Skaggs, the bluegrass and country singer, once observed in concert that he couldn’t imagine what the shock of a sudden angelic appearance would do to the body. The audience appreciated the lighthearted quip, but humor aside, he made a point. With a fuller comprehension of Luke 2’s context from that film, I understood how the angels’ sudden announcement of peace and goodwill would have been a heavenly flood of relief to these impoverished and lowly men.
“Above its sad and lowly plains / they bend on hovering wing / And ever o’er its Babel sounds / the blessed angels sing.”
Even though we don’t live in biblical Israel, we still feel an absence of peace. Financial insecurity is real for many. Family conflicts characterize the majority of homes. The advent of technology introduced a continuous clamor of information, negative news, resources, ideas, and constant communication. Because we live in America, we have the ability to gloss over and hide our troubles to some extent. Yet, underneath the external troubles, noise, and varnish, every soul, whether or not it comprehends it, longs for deeper rest and security.
“And ye, 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 / O rest beside the weary road / and hear the angels sing.”
The angels revealed the arrival of anticipated peace to the shepherds, but they did not tell the whole story that night. It would be years before the full revelation of Jesus’ plan for peace would be clear for all to see. Many in Christ’s day thought He had come to drive out foreign influence and restore Israel’s independence, even though He stated that He did not come to bring peace but a sword, foreshadowing the conflicts between His truth and the kingdom of darkness (Matthew 10:34, Ephesians 6:12). However, He did spend His years of ministry in acts of restoration and healing to the lowly and hurting, those who society would have scorned and trampled. And for those who had ears to hear, He revealed His intention to enact something greater than peace on the physical earth — the promise of eternal rest with God for those who would trust in His sacrifice.
“For lo! the days are hastening on / by prophet bards foretold / when with the ever-circling years / shall come the time foretold / when peace shall over all the earth / its ancient splendors fling /and the whole world give back the song / which now the angels sing.”
We know there is no promise of perfect peace on earth. God does, in His mercy, allow spaces and places of greater comfort and stability, but in the mortal realm, we can’t ultimately flee from our problems. The dream home is still subject to natural disasters and decay. The best vacation can be spoiled by death, bad news, and arguments.
This final verse is beautifully poetic. While this carol does not present the gospel overtly, I wonder if these closing lines refer to the new heaven and the new earth, while whispering of the peace that Adam and Eve enjoyed before succumbing to Satan’s deception — primarily, the peace of an unhindered relationship with God. They speak of the swift passage of years, a reminder that we will not bear our burdens forever. One day, we will cast them off when the Father calls us to the land of perfect peace, when we will shed the last vestiges of our sinful nature, and when He will reunite us to Himself in the unclouded relationship we were meant to have since the beginning of time. And one glorious day, the new heaven and earth will give back the song of the angels for eternity.
For the complete lyrics of “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” see Hymnary.org.
Rosalie Chesley serves at the Baptist Convention of Maryland/Delaware as the assistant to the interim executive director and the managing editor of BaptistLIFE.
Cover photo: by katarinagondova on Adobe Stock.