And in the same region, there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-14)
Edmund Hamilton Sears was born on April 6, 1810 in Sandisfield, Massachusetts. After graduating from Harvard Divinity School in 1837, he began to serve in Unitarian churches in Massachusetts. He worked with the congregation in Wayland before moving on to a larger church in Lancaster. After 7 years of work there, he suffered a breakdown and returned to Wayland, where he served as a part-time preacher.
At Christmas of 1849, Sears was greatly troubled by the state of the world. The recent US-Mexican War was fresh in his mind. There was news of revolution in Europe. Tensions were increasing between North and South, which finally erupted into Civil War only about a decade later. He was distressed because the message of the angelic chorus, of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” seemed to be completely unheeded.
In response, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” one of the earliest Christmas carols written in the United States. Some accounts say that it was sung by church members in his home on Christmas Eve; others, that he composed it for the Sunday School of the Unitarian church in nearby Quincy. At any rate, it was published on December 29 of that year in the Christian Register in Boston and has been included in virtually every hymnal produced since the late 19th century.
It is somewhat surprising that a Unitarian would write a text about the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Today, the Unitarian Universalist Association does not even consider itself to be a Christian group, drawing influences from other world religions as well as humanism. Though both of its predecessor organizations emerged from professing Christian denominations, (the Unitarian Association and the Universalist Church), even in the 19th century, Unitarians were highly unorthodox. But Sears always believed and taught the Divinity of Christ, even writing a book on the Gospel of John.
In response to concerns about that background, however, some editions have rewritten the final verse to make it more explicitly Christian, noting that the text never actually refers directly to Jesus. The original lyrics reference the age to come, When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling/And the whole world give back the song, which now the angels sing. Many times now you will find that first line written instead as When the new Heaven and Earth shall own, the Prince of Peace their King.
While well-intentioned, this ignores the context of the passage in Luke which proclaims the angel song: they are singing about peace on earth precisely because unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Jesus defeated all the dark powers of this world amassed against him, showing that their ultimate weapon, death, no longer has any power over him or his people. Even if peace does not reign now, one day it will, when God makes all things new. This hymn, then, causes us to not only look back to the birth of our Lord, but to look forward to his glorious return and the eternal Kingdom of God.
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord… The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze; their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:1-2, 6-9)