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Nevertheless, the angels sing

I don’t know what I like best about the celebration of Christmas.

There’s the lights. Have you been on Farmville’s “Battle of the Bulbs” holiday light tour yet? It’s amazing.

Then there’s the decorations. The window displays on Main Street are quite beautiful.

There’s also the food. I’ll boldly put this out there. I love fruitcake. My stepmom sends us one each Christmas from a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It just might change your mind about fruitcake.

Oh, our beloved Christmas traditions. Even a pandemic can’t erase the happiness they bring to us. We need these joyous things even more this year, don’t we? The candles in the windows, the once-a-year delicacies, even the modest little 3-foot tree in our living room. I find myself taking comfort in these outward signs and symbols of the greatest event ever to happen to mortal people. The time when God broke into history to take on our flesh and become one of us. That’s the greatest gift of all.

In my list of my favorite things about Christmas, I left out my most favorite thing of all — the music of Christmas. The songs we hear on the radio are fun — “Rudolph,” “Frosty,” “All I Want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth” — but where I find deep joy in these dark days is in the sacred music of the season. The hymns, songs and carols whose words and music reach into our souls and put 2020 in touch with eternity.

One carol of Christmas that I especially love is, “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.”

As with so many of the songs of Christmas, it has an interesting backstory. It was written in 1849 by a Unitarian minister, Edmund Sears. Sears was the pastor of a congregation in Weyland, Massachusetts, and in 1849 he was physically ill and recovering from a bout with depression. Our country had just been through one war — a war with Mexico — and another conflict — the Civil War — loomed on the horizon. For Sears, the Unitarian pastor, there was strife within and strife without, and yet the words from the beginning of the Gospel of Luke spoke to him of a great hope for humankind.

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’” (Luke 2: 13-14)

Messengers from God, the angelic host brought tidings of great joy to the shepherds on the Bethlehem hillsides, and from them to all the world, “Peace on the earth, goodwill to men, from heaven’s all-gracious King.”

The third verse of Rev. Sears’ carol speaks especially to me in this moment.

“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load, Whose forms are bending low,

Who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow.”

I don’t know about you, but I feel like my form is bending pretty low these days. We are all taking painful steps and slow through this hard winter, praying that on the other side of this hard year there will be better things — health restored, jobs restored, peace among fellow citizens restored. That may be too much to ask, but wasn’t the birth of a Savior too much to ask, too?

Keep praying, dear friends, and keep helping, too, for one day to come, as the Massachusetts minister wrote so long ago, when, “The whole world (will) give back the song, which now the angels sing.”

A merry and blessed Christmas to you.

REV. SUSIE THOMAS is lead pastor of Farmville United Methodist Church. Her email address is sthomas@farmvilleumc.org.