Advent Week 3: Luke 1:46b-55
Click on the box above to hear It Came Upon a Midnight Clear
Thursday, December 21
Professor Eric Wall
Last March, a senior here at Austin Seminary preached from the first chapter of Luke: The Annunciation, when Mary is visited by an angel. The liturgical year locates that story in Advent, as we know, but also, as we should expect, in March: nine months before Christmas. Mary’s world—and the whole world—is upended, and Mary responds with what we call the “Song of Mary” or “Magnificat.” For her it is a faith utterance, not a canonized text. The last words are “to Abraham and to his descendants forever,” and the Magnificat has indeed traveled through time, clothed in music and liturgy, summoning justice work, confirming hopes beyond what we can see. Mary says-sings-shouts a poemsong-prophecy-manifesto, and descendants have sung, re-sung, and re-imagined it, from serene Evensong to foot-stomping folk tunes.
Nine months pass, and angels return with a diff erent song: Glory to God in the highest, peace on earth—story and song sung, re-sung, re-imagined, “to descendants forever.” Mary’s song and the angels’ song frame a holy pregnancy, when Mary is great with child so that the world might be great with child. Two glorious songs of old, still coming to us with wings unfurled.
When Edmund Sears wrote a poem called It Came Upon the Midnight Clear, he didn’t write “a Christmas carol.” He, like Mary, responded to angel words, glimpsed revelation, knew the world, and made poetry claiming that that world could be—will be—made different by God’s power. We know “Midnight Clear” to two tunes: NOEL and CAROL. What if we heard those words (like the Magnificat through centuries) to different music, different imaginative spaces? Listen to the Magnificat chanted. Then listen to “Midnight Clear” with five different tunes: poetry and music recalling an angel song and praying for peace on earth.