Posted by: rcottrill | August 20, 2014

Calm on the Listening Ear of Night

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Words: Edmund Hamilton Sears (b. Apr. 6, 1810; d. Jan. 14, 1876)
Music: Bethlehem, by Gottfried Wilhelm Fink (b. Mar. 8, 1783; d. Aug. 27, 1846)

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal

Note: The Cyber Hymnal suggests several tunes for this fine 1834 carol. Bethlehem is also commonly used with Thy Word Is Like a Garden, Lord. The main drawback with St. Agnes (used also with Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee) is that it requires splitting each stanza of Sears hymn (as the Cyber Hymnal has it) in two, and that would become quite repetitious if all five (ten!) stanzas were sung.

It should also be noted, however, that in the many versions found in old hymnals (see the hymn was printed in a four-line version until around 1875. But these books also omitted much of the hymn, using only two or three of the eight-line stanzas. The longer melody works better, in my view.

The tune Carol, which is used for Sears’ more familiar Christmas hymn, It Came Upon the Midnight Clear almost fits this hymn as well. Almost–but it puts the emphasis in the wrong place. (E.g. “Calm ON the listening ear of night,” and “Glo-REE to God, the lofty strain.” If you can abide this slight problem, the tune does have the advantage of being very familiar.

Most would not class Edmund Sears as an orthodox Christian. He was an adherent of the heretical teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, and pastored in several Unitarian churches. We would disagree with some of his theology, but he has given us two Christmas carols, the more familiar It Came Upon the Midnight Clear and, sixteen years earlier, the present song that he called simply “A Christmas Song.”

The hymn is couched in exceptionally fine poetry. Read the full version in the Cyber Hymnal to see. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it was “one of the most beautiful poems ever written.” Whether we would agree with that high praise, it is a beautiful carol. And there is nothing in it that flies in the face of orthodoxy.

Two millennia ago, some shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem were watching over their flocks (Lk. 2:8-20). In that pre-industrial time, the clarity of the star-spangled sky could be seen without a veil of smog, or competing lights from the town. A sighing wind, and the bleating of sheep, may have mingled with low conversation. But none of that seemed to intrude upon the stillness of the scene. Then it happened.

First, “an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (vs. 9). Notice the Bible does not say he was floating in the sky, as he is pictured on some Christmas cards. He “stood before them.” And they were naturally frightened by his sudden appearance, and by the unearthly glow around him. But he spoke reassuringly: “Do not be afraid…I bring you good tidings of great joy….there is born to you…a Saviour, who is Christ, the Lord” (vs. 10-11).

Just as suddenly, there appeared “with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’” (vs. 13-14). A multitude. It’s a word sometimes used of the crowds that followed the Lord Jesus during His years of ministry. It suggests a large number.

Whether the angels actually sang or not, is debated. But the word “praising” can legitimately be translated singing praises. And their message certainly interrupted the quiet vigil of those who listened. Immediately, “they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (vs. 16).

Though the words of the angels were heard by only a handful of humble shepherds that night, they have resounded unceasingly around the world, ever since. They joyfully proclaimed the coming of the Saviour who would one day die on the cross to save us from our sins (Jn. 3:16).

CH-1) Calm on the listening ear of night
Come heaven’s melodious strains,
Where wild Judea stretches forth
Her silver mantled plains.
Celestial choirs from courts above
Shed sacred glories there,
And angels, with their sparkling lyres,
Make music on the air.

CH-2) The answering hills of Palestine
Send back the glad reply;
And greet, from all their holy heights,
The Dayspring from on high.
O’er the blue depths of Galilee
There comes a holier calm,
And Sharon waves, in solemn praise,
Her silent groves of palm.

CH-5) This day shall Christian tongues be mute,
And Christian hearts be cold?
Oh, catch the anthem that from heaven
O’er Judah’s mountains rolled.
When burst upon that listening night
The high and solemn lay:
“Glory to God, on earth be peace,”
Salvation comes today!

1) Is this a carol you use at Christmas? (If not by singing it, could you do so as a reading?)

2) What is there about this carol that makes it superior to It Came Upon the Midnight Clear?

Wordwise Hymns
The Cyber Hymnal


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