Then Pealed The Bells

It didn’t seem to get much air-time, but back in mid November, Pope Francis called the celebrations of Christmas a charade in a world that has chosen war and hate. He’s not the first to utter such sentiments. Frankly, it’s one I feel myself. It’s precisely the contrast between the dazzle of Christmas and reality that gets to many of us. There’s a reason why there are songs like If We Make It Through December.

There is one song though, written as poem over a hundred and fifty years ago, that not only asks this very thing, but gives the answer. I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day has been one of my favorite Christmas carols from the moment I heard the words. And all of us who dwell on the stark contrast between the darkness of the world and the brightness of Christmas need to take it to heart.

Christmas 1863 was a grim both for the nation and for poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1863, America was in the midst of the Civil War. Despite significant Union victories, the war was far from decided, with mounting casualties. As for Longfellow, in July of 1861 his wife Francis’ dress caught on fire in a freak accident. Longfellow tried to smother the flames with a rug, and when that proved too small, with his own body. Both were badly burned, and the following day Francis Longfellow died from her injuries. Henry Longfellow was still depressed in April of 1863 when his eldest son, Charles, enlisted in the Union Army. By late November Charles was a casualty, courtesy of a Minie Ball that nicked his spine as it slammed through his body. A telegram set Henry Longfellow, and his son Ernest, on a search for Charles. They obtained a pass to reach Union line, and found him in early December. All three returned home on December 8. Charles’ part in the war was over; he received a medical discharge due to his wounds.

In this dark time, as war consumed America, with his eldest son  still unable to dress himself due to his wounds, and the brightness of Christmas approached, Longfellow wrote the poem Christmas Bells:

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!

I thought of 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 change 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.”

These words, without the fourth and fifth verse, became I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. That Christmas of 1863, when war and personal tragedy mocked the joy of Christmas in Longfellow’s life, the real meaning of the celebration sunk in. The point of Christmas isn’t that all is brightness and joy, quite the opposite. The point is that Jesus came to be our Savior because things aren’t well. If things were, the world would never have needed a Savior. Jesus came precisely because without one, there is no hope at all.

That is why we keep Christmas. The celebration of Christmas is not that there is peace and joy now, but that there will be peace and joy, all because one night two thousand years ago God Incarnate was born in a small town in the Middle East and would one day hang on a cross, His life in exchange for ours. Christmas is a celebration of hope.

For this reason America could celebrate Christmas in 1863, just as it did in 1941 eighteen days after Pearl Harbor, and just as we did in 2000 after 9/11. For though hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will toward men, God is not dead, nor does He sleep.

The meaning of Christmas is not people making merry; it’s people making merry because of the meaning of Christmas. That’s something we all need to remember. That includes those of us who find the contrast between the celebration and the world a bit much to bear.

Maybe we’d find Christmas a little brighter if we did.

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