Editor’s poem, now a carol, offers clear focus at Christmas

Scott Swanson

Until recently, I’d never paid much attention to James Montgomery.

In church I’ve seen his name listed as the writer of hymns we still sing today. But I’d never gone beyond idly wondering who he was, and I haven’t bothered to find out.

Recently, though, I decided to do a little investigation. Turns out he was a newspaper publisher, which resonated a bit with me even if Montgomery lived two centuries ago. I read on, so to speak.

Fact is, this English newspaper publisher was really quite a guy.

Born in Scotland in 1771, he was orphaned while a schoolboy and had a difficult childhood, failed school and was eventually assigned to an apprenticeship, as was common for youngsters in those days.

Through a series of circumstances that I won’t recount here, in time he became editor of a newspaper in Sheffield, England.

These were times of political repression in Great Britain and he was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition, in 1795 for printing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille, and again in 1796 was for criticizing a magistrate for forcibly dispersing a political protest in Sheffield.

He used his newspaper to champion many causes, including abolishment of child labor in factories, slavery and ending the exploitation of child chimney sweeps.

Montgomery had long been interested in poetry and, eventually, that’s what he focused on because he wasn’t much of a newspaper publisher – since running a publication involves much more than simply writing, which was his strength.

He advocated for the singing of hymns in church, a practice that apparently was opposed by some of the bishops in the Church of England. This cause eventually won approval and Montgomery became quite involved in the study and production of hymnody, while achieving some fame as a secular poet. People had more time on their hands in those days, and poetry definitely enjoyed wider popularity than it does today, when most of us never look at a poem once we’re finished with literature class.

So why do I bring this up on the day before Christmas? Because Montgomery wrote one of the most famous Christmas carols we hear today: “Angels from the Realms of Glory.”

Maybe it’s just my advancing age, but as the world seemingly grows more complicated these days, a appreciate more these carols that hark back to basic, important principles the shed light in a chaotic world.

In recent months we’ve seen:

– innocent western aid workers and journalists beheaded by Muslim extremist thugs;

– schoolchildren massacred by more of the same;

– strong evidence that dozens of college students have been massacred by Mexican drug lords or their corrupt police allies;

– a sobering report indicating that our own government has been involved in torture in its efforts to combat Islamic terrorism;

– a foreign government hacking a major movie studio because it didn’t like a film the studio planned to release;

– serious protests in the U.S. following killings of blacks by white police officers,

– nearly two dozen rape accusations against one of America’s most beloved TV personalities; and

– an ebola epidemic that has frightened the world.

Not to mention continued rancor and general paralysis within our legislative bodies, a lack of leadership noted buy people on both ends of the political spectrum, and a general national decline in many areas – economically, security-wise, and maybe morally.

When life is chaotic, we instinctively seek stabilizing influences, which can be a wide variety of things: relationships, entertainment, food, drink, drugs, religion, etc.

Some find reassurance and comfort in holidays such as the one many of us are celebrating now: Christmas.

It’s a happy time for a lot of us – gift-giving and receiving, food and drink, beautiful decorations and cheerful music, shopping, traditions, trees, travel, time off from work and school, handbell choirs, more shopping…

Some combination of these can, at least temporarily, provide respite from the difficulties out there.

I’ve been reminded this year, though, that Christmas can be much more than just the superficial feel-good experiences that are here now and gone tomorrow, when we go back to work.

That’s what I find in reading Montgomery’s poem, written while he was still the editor of the Sheffield Iris, his newspaper, and published on Christmas Eve 1816

There are realities here that extend far beyond those superficial joys we experience in all of the above, and amid the chaos is a good time to contemplate them.

Here’s what Montgomery wrote:

“Angels, from the realms of glory,

Wing your flight o’er all the earth;

Ye who sang creation’s story,

Now proclaim Messiah’s birth:

Come and worship,

Come and worship,

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Shepherds, in the fields abiding,

Watching o’er your flocks by night,

God with man is now residing,

Yonder shines the infant light:

Come and worship,

Come and worship,

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Sages, leave your contemplations,

Brighter visions beam afar;

Seek the great Desire of nations,

Ye have seen his natal star:

Come and worship,

Come and worship,

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

All creation, join in praising

God the Father, Spirit, Son,

Evermore your voices raising,

To th’eternal Three in One:

Come and worship,

Come and worship,

Worship Christ, the newborn King.

Amid all the fluff, the fun, the frivolity, this guy gets down to the nitty-gritty of what this holiday really is supposed to be about.

Montgomery knew how difficult life could be – losing your parents, flunking out of school and getting thrown in the clink for expressing your opinions aren’t exactly what I’d think of as the good life.

When we see evil in our world and even in ourselves, we might consider looking outside ourselves. I think James Montgomery’s focus was pretty clear here. When things are grim, there’re brighter glories out there that would be well for us to consider.

On that note, allow me to wish you a truly blessed and fulfilling Merry Christmas!