It is rather a tired Christmas cliché for preachers to go on about how we need to get beyond the tinsel and trimmings to the heart of Christmas – but one that sadly needs repeating. And while I love what Christmas is all about it, perhaps even more now than ever, it is interesting how different aspects strike home amidst all the familiarity and form. There’s no predicting what it’s going to be, if anything. But this year, I’ve been struck by how often the tradition pierces through the vacuous, trite and superficially jolly to engage with even the deepest hurts and doubts.
It first hit me as we sang that old chestnut, It Came Upon The Midnight Clear, whose 3rd verse goes like this:
O ye beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow;
Look now, for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
Oh rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing.
You certainly don’t expect to sing about crushing loads or painful steps at times of jollity. But then, as I’ve mentioned on Q more than once, so-called contemporary-Christian-music (CCM) has little room for such thoughts – it’s far too tinselly-schmaltzily-lovelily for that sort of thing to intrude. Which is why I can’t cope with so much of it. I just don’t see my life in it. But in case you feared that CCM was the some total of American hymnody, you’ll be interested to know that It Came Upon The Midnight Clear was written by an American.
And I was grateful for it. For there are times when the loads really do seem crushing – and the steps on the narrow path deeply painful. Consciousness of that makes the rest that comes from angels’ songs is such balm. It is why Christmas is so important. It is a breaking in to all that it means to be human.
Which brings me to this. As I was singing that carol, another (possibly) American poem popped into my mind: Jesus Christ the Apple Tree (written at some point in the 18th Century). I remember singing it as a choirboy (ah, how sweet) and have loved it deeply ever since, not least because of Elizabeth Poston‘s sublime, deceptively simple arrangement.
What I love about it is it’s use of the imagery, in particular the ways in which it varies it for different experiences in life: Christ’s uniqueness, his glory, the sense of belonging in him, the rest he provides, the confidence he instills, the joy he gives – but above all, the sustenance on the dark days in v7.
Here is King’s Cambridge singing it. It’s just a notch too fast for my liking (there’s an earlier recording of them on youtube, but the quality isn’t so good). But that’s just nit-picky. Enjoy.