One of my favorite Christmas songs is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” However, this song took on a little extra meaning this week. First, I heard the meaning behind it. It is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
When Longfellow wrote it, he had recently lost his wife, Fanny, to a horrific accident. Her dress caught on fire and he tried to put it out. She passed away from the injuries and he was horrifically scarred. Then Charley, his son enrolled in the Union Army against his father’s wishes. Charley was severely injured during the Battle of New Hope Church and barely survived. On Christmas, Longfellow heard the Christmas Bells ringing and he sat down and wrote the poem that “I Heard the Bells is on Christmas Morning.”
Knowing the story behind it really brings the song to life. It is no surprise that a man mourning his wife, whose son may be mortally wounded would write the verse:
And in despair I hung my head
There is no peace on earth I said
For hate is strong that mocks the song
of peace on Earth goodwill to men
A message of despair and lack of hope seems so out of place during Advent and Christmas. It is a great reminder, that for some people, Christmas is a hard, even painful time. Then Reality creeps in as we hear about the shooting in San Bernandino this week. When we realize that this was 355th shooting this year alone, it becomes very understandable and even tempting to hang our head in despair and cry out that there is no peace on earth. All through the world, there are people suffering, people in pain, people who are victims of domestic abuse, or killed by violence of war and terrorism.
Where is the peace that was promised? If the song stopped after that verse, it would be a downer of a Christmas song. Luckily, Longfellow kept writing:
Then pealed the the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor does he sleep
The wrong shall fail the right prevail
with peace on earth goodwill to men
This verse, and song, remind us that even as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Christ, that we still live in a broken world, a world full of pain, injustice, and suffering. However, we are not alone. As we travel through this broken world, we have the assurance that God is not dead, that God does not sleep.
Last week, we lit the first candle of the Advent wreath, the “hope” candle. Advent is a time of both “once before” and “not yet.” Christ has come into the world, but he he has not returned. That is where we find our hope, where we find our peace. We live in a broken world, but when Christ comes, he will take our brokenness away. Swords will be beaten into plow shares and spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not rise up against nation, and there will be peace on earth and goodwill to all of humanity. Until than, as followers of Christ, we are called to be agents of peace, justice, and goodwill, while praying “Come, Lord Jesus, Come.”
Romans 15:12- 13 “Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.” 13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”