It is interesting to note the vital roles the angels play in the birth narratives of Jesus. They are the heralds of God, the ones who carry God’s message to earth. It stands to reason that they should be front and center in the story of Jesus’ birth.
That is also why so much of the beloved hymns we sing during Advent and Christmas are about the angels.
“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is one of those hymns. The thing most noteworthy about this hymn is the visual setting the hymn creates for us. We are led to imagine “the midnight clear” and a “solemn stillness” that engulfed the world in the angels’ presence to hear God’s prophetic word. You can almost see these towering mystical figures leaning forward, drawing near to the people below with golden harps in hand as they deliver their holy message:
“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, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
To hear the angels sing.”
This verse suggests a graceful movement of the angels as they sweep across the face of the earth, singing their “heavenly” song. Then, in stark contrast, we are given an image of the sad state of the people, those hearing the angels message of hope and goodwill to all people over the chaos, the Babel sounds, of the people. The question we are left with, did the people attend to the angels’ song in the midst of the all the chaotic noise?
“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.”
The sorry state of humankind is given more definition in the third verse with the call to heed the message of the angels.
“O 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;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.”
And then, the last verse reminds us that God’s word of hope, spoken through the angels, comes to us with the expectation that it will return to God fulfilled.
“For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.”
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