A Christmas Carol for Advent: Retooling "It Came upon the Midnight Clear" for today's worshipers

12/2 LOFT planning meeting

Got an e-mail last week about using Christmas carols in Advent. So at the meeting, I did a little explaining to the team about the season—used a bit from that great sermon of Jack’s—the one where he talks about the world anticipating Christmas with a “happy busyness,” while Christians prepare for Christ’s second coming with a “serious stillness.” The world majors in nostalgia, looking to a golden past; but Christians look to the future—to that great day when the universe will be restored and all God’s creatures will sing with the morning star of great joy. (The preacher in me got a little carried away, I admit). Then Aaron asks, “Why can’t we do both?”

It’s a fair question. Oughtn’t we have both promise and fulfillment? Seems to me there are decent pastoral reasons for singing Christmas carols during December, if they aren’t too sentimental and syrupy. If we don’t sing them in church, when will we? And to whom? To ourselves at the mall? Wouldn’t it be better to sing them to God in worship?

Maybe we can do something next week.

To do: Look through Christmas carol book for Advent themes.

What about “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”? (See pp. 30-31 for music.)The first verse is all most folks know, and it’s the standard “harps of gold” stuff. But the remaining verses are filled with the pain of a “weary world” and its groaning for redemption. There’s stuff about “Babel sounds” (what a great image in contrast to the angel song!), about war and “woes of sin and strife,” about “life’s crushing load” and about walk-ing along (like the captives in Babylon) taking “painful steps and slow.”

Then the last verse talks about the “age foretold” (eschatological hope) when the whole earth flings the song back to the angels. Great stuff!

But the tune—yeesh! That sugary 6/8 lilt will never work in an explicitly Advent service. And the text is pretty nineteenth century: masculine language, American progress (what’s an “age of gold” anyway?).


Aaron and I talked about—and rejected—the chorus “Come let us adore him” as a way to solve our Christmas/Advent problem. It’s familiar and Christmasy, yes; but musically it just sits there. We laughed at generating musical excitement by bringing it up a half-step every time through. Whee! Mary noted how textually thin the words are: “We’ll give him all the glory,” “We’ll praise his name forever,” etc.


Bruce Cockburn! I knew there was a reason I got my head stuck on “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”! Trevor reminded me that Bruce’s Christmas album has a great arrangement—shifted into the relative minor. I listened: it’s slower, melancholy, and more melodic. Perfect! Bruce writes on the liner notes that he’d heard the song done this way first by Sam Phillips—a shift that “enhanced the poignantly thoughtful words in a way that made me wish I’d thought of it.” If Bruce can borrow from someone, maybe we can borrow from him.

To do: Work on arrangement of “It Came” in this style for guitar.
12/8 Planning Meeting

Suggested “It Came upon the Midnight Clear” in Gm rather than Bb as a way to do a song that is both Christmas and Advent, longing and fulfillment. Lyric problems (non-inclusive language, “ye”s, etc.) 90 percent solved in the Gather text. Only a little additional tweaking required.

After playing through it (see box), we said it seemed like a prayer. It isn’t, but since that’s what it pointed us to, that’s the way we’ll use it Sunday—as an entry into a prayer of lament and confession (silence after?).

12/9 Rehearsal Notes

To do: Make sure Brooke (viola) plays strong on melody for congregation to follow—especially on the last notes of each cadence. Keep rest of arrangement spare (less is more).

At rehearsal, a couple of students who weren’t at the planning meeting reacted skeptically to “It Came”—at least initially. We talked a little about the danger of messing with Christmas carols and changing them around. Isn’t that spoiling the familiarity that folks want the carols for in the first place?

Of course that led to a larger discussion about whether worship is about what we want or what we need—and if those two overlap as much as they should. We agreed that on Sunday we had to be honest and to explain what we’re doing. The student body (like Christ’s body?) is all in favor of trying something different, even something uncomfortable, if they understand why and if it leads to deeper worship. If we do the explaining, we can let God take care of the worship part.



It Came upon the Midnight Clear

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, to all good will,
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 hov’ring wing,
and ever o’er its Babel sounds
the blessed angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn
have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not
the tidings that they bring:
O hush your noise, and cease your strife,
and hear the angels sing!

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:
O rest beside the weary road
and hear the angels sing.

For lo, the days are hastening on,
by prophet bards foretold,
when with the ever-circling years
comes round the age of gold;
when peace shall over all the earth
its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back
the song which now the angels sing.

—Edmund H. Sears, 1849


Guitar tablature (TAB) is a common method of writing down music played on guitar. Its six-line staff graphically represents the guitar fingerboard, with the top line indicating the highest sounding string. By placing a number on the appropriate line, the fretting of each string can be indicated. (Frets are the ridges on the fingerboard). The number 0 represents an open string.

In the example at right, the first vertical set of numbers are the open E chord. The “arched” numbers are the arpeggiated G chord.

Tablature can convey many other guitar techniques: hammer on and pull-off, bends and slides, harmonics, and so on. For more information about tablature and a full glossary, go to http://www.endprod.com/tab/ or http://www.harmonycentral.com/Guitar/tab notation.txt.

Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra has been a regular contributor to Reformed Worship over the years. He is the director of worship life and professor of preaching and worship arts at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. He is an ordained minister in the Reformed Church in America , author of Church at Church, and coauthor with his wife, Debra, of Worship Words: Discipling Language for Faithful Ministry. Together they have three grown children, a multiplicity of living-room instruments, and a tame backyard they are slowly rewilding.

Reformed Worship 57 © September 2000, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.