Christmas Meditation #5: Christmas Bells

In 1863, during the American Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, an American poet, penned the words that for many of us may be more familiar as the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The poem, Christmas Bells, which appears below, was originally written on Christmas Day (1863). The inspiration for Longfellow’s poem was born out of the recent loss of his wife, Frances, and the impending possibility of losing his eldest son, Charles, who after having ran away to become a Union soldier had been severely wounded in combat.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along
The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime,
A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

It is a poem composed in the midst of immense sorrow and suffering but which climaxes on a jubilant note of hope. It is reminiscent of many of the psalms of lament such as Psalm 13 (NIV),

How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.

Both of these poems, Christmas Bells and Psalm 13, remind us in the midst of profound sorrow and suffering that God has not forgotten us, nor does he hide from us, but has in fact been good to us. They encourage us to drown out the voice of despair with words of hope:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

They remind us that our hope is in God’s unfailing love towards us in Christ. During this Christmas season, which can be replete with sadness as much as it is with joy and food and gifts, let’s rejoice in God’s salvation, singing praise to him, as we celebrate and remember the first Advent of our Lord Jesus and eagerly anticipate his second.

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