Edmund Sears was a Unitarian Parish Priest in the early 19th century. His theology tended to be more on the progressive end; his faith in Christ not as an historical event, but as an experiential knowing of God with us: Emmanuel. Contextualized in a time of rising industrialization, rising social tension, loudening voices on both sides of the issue of slavery, he finds himself in 1849 with great hope in his heart for what can be in the coming of Christ.
Sitting in worship several weeks before Christmas 2019, our congregation sang Edmund Sears most famous hymn, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear. Verse two caught my heart like a hook that I still have not been able to extract even after Epiphany is come. “And ever o”er the Babel sounds… the blessed angels sing.”
Babel may be a good story of the human condition that continues to exalt itself and BE God, but when I take a look at the placement of the story of the Tower of Babel in the story of God, it’s plain to see how human history repeats itself. Even with God’s repeated intervention we move from the story of the Garden expulsion, to the great flood, and now to an audacious and ill-conceived notion that we can be almighty, omniscient, and high above all else. Silly, faithless us. And we are not quiet or discreet in our endeavors to “make a name for ourselves”, as the writer of Genesis says.
So God comes down to confuse us – as if we needed a lot of help with that. How very genius of God to make it so we could not hear or understand one another. It flashed through my mind as we were singing – even Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit have not unified us to speak in one voice, to hear each other with hopeful understanding, mutual consideration, and response that blesses the common good. We apparently are stuck in Babel! The ego-soaked din of our time is so loud, so vitriolic and mean spirited, how in the world will we ever hear the angels sing? Do we even believe the angels are around us singing? Or are we so self-interested, even a sweet song of hope is drowned out?
I sat waiting for a friend in a coffee shop recently. In a booth a few tables down there were three college-aged young women. Their conversation was lively and loud as they talked about their meds and their doctors, whether or not they were seeing someone who could prescribe. I felt a sadness for the anxieties that fill our young people and our world, anxiety maybe stoked by the speed of life, the pressure of perfection, the shame of simply being human in a world that is filled with the building of towers of exaltation to self. Perhaps we would be well served with a prescription of silence and stillness, of listening rather than talking, of breathing cold winter air, and doing a good deed for another human being.
The liturgical season of Epiphany is upon us. Wisdom, Light, Seeking become the call. If we ever needed to hear the angels sing, it is now. Perhaps the final verse of Sear’s hymn is a call: “ For lo! the days are hastening on by prophet seen of old, when with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.” O Lord, let it be so. Amen.