Monday, December 8, 2008

Listen to the Bells on Christmas Day

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.

A classic Christmas carol that is now seldom heard is I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day. The song was written by the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1864. Many Americans will remember some of Longfellow’s works, such as “the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” “the Song of Hiawatha” and “the Village Blacksmith,” from American Literature classes.

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.

It is not as well known that Longfellow was a staunch Christian. His works included Christus, a trilogy detailing the history of Christianity. When Longfellow listened to the church bells ringing on Christmas day, they spoke to him the song the angels sang at the birth of Christ. This song has been repeated for the two thousand years since Jesus’ birth.

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.”

In the midst of Christmas joy, Longfellow suddenly hangs his head in despair. In spite of the angel’s proclamation of peace on earth, he realizes that the world is far from peaceful. This song was written in the midst of the American Civil War (or to those of us from the South, The War Against Northern Aggression).

1864 was one of the darkest years of American history. The war had dragged on for three long years. Families were split apart as brother fought brother. Hundreds of thousands on both sides had been killed and wounded. Farmland and cities had been ravaged. Political opponents of President Lincoln attempted to force a negotiated settlement to end the war short of victory. For most Americans in 1864, there was no end in sight. Longfellow’s despair can be more clearly seen in two “lost verses” that are not typically printed in most songbooks.

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.

For Longfellow, the war was not merely a question of nationalism. Longfellow’s Christian beliefs led him to oppose slavery. In fact, many abolitionists of the era based their view of the evil of slavery on their Christian belief that all men are equal in the eyes of God. Longfellow, who along with Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was a Bowdoin College professor, viewed the possible victory of the Confederacy as a triumph of the evil of slavery. Longfellow’s despair was due not only to the large numbers of casualties of the war, but the thought that their sacrifices might have been in vain; the Union might not be preserved and thousands of slaves might remain in bondage.

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.”

Finally, the bells speak to Longfellow through his despair. The last word has not been written. God is aware of what is happening. He has promised us that, in the end, evil will be defeated and righteousness will be victorious. Peace on earth, good will toward men is not a statement of current conditions. It is a promise of things to come.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is a song that holds a message for us today. It is easy for us to despair as our nation is engaged in a long war against terrorist fanatics. We see dictators rising to power around the world. Other radical nations are growing closer and closer to the possession of weapons of mass destruction. At home, our economy is a shambles. Many of us are unemployed or in fear for our jobs and our livelihoods.

If we listen to the message of the bells on Christmas day, we will find assurance that God is in control and promises peace on earth and goodwill to men. God is just. Evil will not be allowed to flourish forever. Justice may be completed now, in the future when Christ returns, or in the next world, but justice will be done. Jusice delayed is not justice denied.

The fact is that justice is only denied because of the goodwill of God Himself. God’s patience and desire that we should become men of goodwill and seek His forgiveness for our own evil actions leads Him to delay administering our ultimate sentence of death for our crimes against God. We must realize that, in God’s eyes, little evils are just as evil as big evils, and just as deserving of divine justice.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day tells us that peace on earth and goodwill towards men are a future promise to be fulfilled by God. To reap the benefits of that promise, we must heed God’s call to turn from our own wicked ways and seek salvation through the baby in the Bethlehem manger. Our hope for peace on earth and goodwill towards men will be fulfilled through Jesus, who is the real hope of Christmas.

Complete Lyrics:

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