Tuesday, December 24, 2013

The Christmas Bells

In 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem he called “Christmas Bells.” The poem was written on Christmas Day and was a reflection of the emotion that Longfellow was feeling at the time.

The poem was shortened considerably and made into a Christmas carol in 1872, and it has been a favorite of many ever since. Here is the original poem in its entirety:

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 hearthstones 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."

The poem begins with the happy thoughts of Christmas, with the joy brought about by the bells. But the joy turns to sorrow before finally ending in joy again. The references to the cannons in the South and the hearthstones of a continent being rent remind us of the Civil War, which was dividing the Country when this poem was penned.
But the emotion that Longfellow was feeling was born from something deeper than a nation at war. Longfellow’s son Charles, a lieutenant for the Union, was mortally wounded that November in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia.
The sound of his son’s death no doubt drowned the carols of peace on earth, good-will to men.
And in despair he bowed his head. But his grief was not only for the loss of his son. Longfellow’s wife died tragically a year and a half earlier when she caught her dress on fire. Part of Henry died that day; he later wrote that he was “inwardly bleeding to death.”
While Christmas may be the most wonderful time of the year, you may well relate to Longfellow, who in despair once thought, “There is no peace on earth.”
This year we feared that we would spend Christmas in the hospital with our son, but on his 23rd day in the NICU he was discharged. Maybe you are a widow who wishes Christmas felt like it used to. Perhaps you are recently divorced and feeling lonely this time of year. It could be that Christmas coincides with the anniversary of the death of a loved.
There are a number of reasons that Christmas can really stink. Many people feel like they have to “just get through” the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way if we can see the big picture. I love how Longfellow concluded his poem.
The Christmas Bells rang with a stronger message than simply indicating the coming of Christmas; the message of the bells was a reminder: God is not dead nor doth He sleep. The Wrong, which breaks our hearts at times, will ultimately fail. The Right, which may feel far away, will finally prevail.
Christmas can be sad and lonely if family, presents, or anything else gets the primary focus. While those things are great, we need to remember that Christmas is a symbol of the birth of Christ, which drawn out, takes us to the cross and empty tomb, where our sins can be forgiven. If you are a believer, then you are never alone because you have a relationship with God Himself.

That should give us all a reason to join the voice, the chime, the chant sublime, of peace on earth, good-will to men.