"It came upon a midnight clear..." Did the shepherds check their watches? Where is it recorded that the angels appeared to the shepherds at midnight? This is no big deal. In fact we grant poetic license for the sake of a popular Christmas Carol, written by Edmund H. Sears in 1850. But did you know that Mr. Sears was a flaming liberal? He was a minister in the Unitarian Church, and was almost dared by his friend to write a Christmas song from his theological perspective. And I guess he put one over on all of us with this Carol.
Perhaps it was the tune that gave it lasting value in the hearts and minds of believers. But I will guarantee you that it definitely was not the theology of this hymn. It basically has no theology. When you stand at a distance (as in observing a piece of art), you will notice it is peculiarly lacking in doctrinal content. In fact the author seems to go out of his way not to mention God or Christ or sin or salvation or any of the record of events that took place the night of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Oh yeah, there is the message of "Peace on the earth good will to men" in the third line of stanza one. In spite of the unfortunate King James translation of a phrase that was intended to underscore election, there is this sound bite from the angel's message that makes the theme of this song.
According to the gospel writer, Luke, the message of the angels that dramatically cheered those shepherds was, "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, which is Christ the Lord." Messiah, anticipated for these thousands of years, had arrived in the form of a newborn. Those who knew they needed a Savior had been looking for the Messiah for their whole lives. The announcement was emphasized by the fact that it was delivered by angels. The peace and good will anticipated were for those to be rescued by this Savior.
The song we are looking into does not celebrate--or even mention this. It is carefully written to make the message no more than a wistful longing for a peaceful life on earth. It is not a careless mistake that the true gospel is excluded from this song. It was calculated to be that way by a man who didn't believe in the deity of Christ or the need of His death for sinners to clear the way for true peace.
That longing for peaceful life finds its fulfillment in the final stanza of the carol. The ever circling years finally brings in the age of gold. Then the whole world will give back the song to the angels. It might as well be the age of Aquarius (remember Hair?), or evolution's crowning refinement of human nature. We don't need God (so why mention Him?) and we certainly don't need a crucified Savior (how medieval!). We just need to grow up and be nice to each other.
Now, of course, this is a free country. You can believe that if you want, as did Mr. Sears. But let's be honest with the documents of the New Testament, that is NOT the teaching we find at the heart of the Christian faith. The good news we like to sing at Christmas time is that the God/man has come to pay the price for our sins that we might be forgiven and made fit for heaven. "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see. Hail the incarnate deity...born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth." Now there's a mouthful of theology. And it has the advantage of being what the Bible actually says.