Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas Wish for Peace

Mikaela says:
Apologies for the re-posting here, but I was so touched by this sermon of peace that I had to share it here.

One of the messages of Christmas that gets me every year is the longing for peace on earth.

This year, Rev. Christine Robinson shared the story of a Unitarian minister who authored the carol “It Came upon the Midnight Clear.” It's not one of my favorite carols, and I'd never paid much attention to the words. It deserves our attention, though. Read on.

Here are the first 2 verses. The rest come after Christine calls for them.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth
To touch their harps of gold!
"Peace on the earth, good will to men,
From heaven's all gracious King!
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.

Still through the cloven skies they come
With peaceful wings unfurled
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world;
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hovering wing.
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.

"Although this is one of the beloved carols of Christians, you’ll note that this is not a carol about Christ. It is a carol about peace....

Edmund Hamilton Sears, Unitarian minister, was a man who longed for peace. His longing was very personal; that is one of the reasons he could write such a beautiful hymn. He longed for peace inside himself, he longed for peace in his community, and he longed for an end of war. He wanted those things so much because he didn’t have them.

Sears was apparently a high-strung man, verging always on a nervous breakdown, haunted by a sense of inadequacy as a minister. Indeed, he never really carried a full workload as a minister; his wife did most of what we would call the pastoral work—the calling, the meetings, the counseling. Edmund couldn’t handle those things. If he lived today, he would probably be diagnosed as clinically depressed, as having some imbalance of brain chemistry that made it hard for him to concentrate, to rest, and to work. These days, he would have medicine to help him lead a normal life, but he lived before such things. So he had to always husband his strength and tranquility by long walks in the country, by working in his garden, and by writing.

Inner peace came hard to Sears, and yet, out of a rare experience of inner peace, he wrote a beautiful carol that now the world enjoys, and enjoys all the more because it is such a peaceful song to sing in a hectic season.

Sears also longed for peace in his community, and he didn’t have much there, either. The people in his community were embroiled in arguments over two important things: over slavery and over the rights of women. Sears was an abolitionist and spoke out for women’s suffrage. His congregation did not all appreciate his stands.

Now, Sears had his own handicaps and problems to think about, and perhaps another man would have said to himself, “I am just not strong enough to argue with my neighbors about national issues.” But he didn’t. He wrote and spoke and preached his conviction that slavery degraded human beings—slaves and owners alike—and degraded nations that allowed it. Sears longed for peace, but not at any price. He was willing to argue for what he believed, even when it caused conflict in his community. Sears spent his small strength fighting for abolition of slavery, knowing, perhaps, that sweeping the conflict among people under the rug does not bring peace, and that only justice can be the basis of lasting harmony.

Finally, Sears longed for peace in his world, which is to say, for an absence of war. And he didn’t have that either, I’m afraid. The Mexican War was going on. Sears thought it was an immoral war and wrote articles trying to convince others of his convictions. If you read the third verse of “It Came upon the Midnight Clear,” you can hear how discouraged he became about peace on earth.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world hath suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophet bards foretold,
When, with the ever-circling years,
Shall come the Age of Gold;
When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And all the world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Edmund Hamilton Sears, Unitarian minister, didn’t see much peace in his time, but the Christmas hymn he wrote about peace was an important force in making peace on Earth one of the messages of Christmas. And probably, more than anything else he wrote in his life, “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” has been a force for peace in our world. For, when enough people hope for peace, then peace can come.

This longing for peace was underlined for me while listening to Performance Today yesterday. There's a classical chorale piece written in honor of the true story about the Christmas truce between German and British soldiers during World War I. From their trenches - just meters apart - the soldiers sang Christmas carols to each other.

Silent Night, holy night.
All is calm, all is bright.
Sleep in heavenly peace.
Sleep in heavenly peace.

Oh for a day of peace for all us all: A truce. Can you imagine it? A suspension of disagreement to feel the resonance of our similarities, the haunting familiarity of oneness, the power of our combined intention for peace: May this instinct continue to guide us toward the generosity of spirit that true calm requires.