In a chaotic world, familiar carol focuses on news we may have forgotten

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

Being a church-goer myself, I’ve seen his name listed as the writer of some popular hymns sung in churches over the last couple of centuries.

However, I’ve awakened to the fact that this English newspaper publisher was quite a guy.

Born in 1771, Montgomery was orphaned while a schoolboy and had a difficult childhood, then 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 review here, he became editor of a newspaper in Sheffield, England.

These were times of political repression and Montgomery was twice imprisoned on charges of sedition, in 1795 for printing a poem celebrating the fall of the Bastille, and again in 1796 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 – which 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 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 again look at a poem once we’re finished with literature class.

So why do I bring all this up as we close in on 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 it seems like the world is getting more complicated these days.

Let’s see… in the last few months alone we’ve seen all manner of disturbing news headlines: despicable acts of violence, political and entertainment luminaries falling like dominoes over allegations of sexual impropriety, tragic natural calamities.

Not to mention continued rancor and general paralysis within our legislative bodies, lack of distinguished and positive leadership in our capitals, and plenty of other issues that I won’t list here.

When life is chaotic, we instinctively seek stabilizing – or comforting – 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 many – gift-giving and receiving, food and drink, interaction with family and friends, beautiful decorations and cheerful music, shopping, traditions, trees, travel, time off from work and school,  etc. Some combination of these can, at least temporarily, provide respite from the difficulties out there.

I’m been reminded, 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 fulfilling 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 Montgomery’s carol. There are more verses here than we normally hear, but in today’s world they might well warrant our consideration:

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,

Ccome 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:


Sages, leave your contemplations,

Brighter visions beam afar;

Seek the great Desire of nations,

Ye have seen his natal star:


Sinners, wrung with true


Doomed for guilt to endless pains,

Justice now revokes the sentence,

Mercy calls you – break your chains:


Though an infant now we view


He shall fill his Father’s throne,

Gather all the nations to him;

Every knee shall then bow down:


All creation, join in praising

God the Father, Spirit, Son,

Evermore your voices raising,

To th’eternal Three in One:


On that note, allow me to wish you a truly blessed, merry Christmas!