I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

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My title here is the same as the title to one of our most beloved Christmas carols. As beloved as it is among so many, I would venture to say that very few people know what story it tells and what message about Christmas it actually brings. Do you?

The year is 1863. Quick: what event does that year evoke? Yes, the terrible Civil War was raging in our own land. It was bringing what war always brings, hell itself.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the now-famous American poet, is at his window in deep thought. It is still the dark hours of early Christmas Day. He has just received word that his son Charles had been wounded while fighting for the Union Army. Suddenly, the bells of the church tower nearby begin to ring out Christmas carols. Multiple bells capable of playing melodies are called carillon bells.

He ponders the complex concurrence of everything in that moment and pens his famous poem. The poem begins with what would be considered the traditional, peace-on-earth sentimental hearing of the Christmas carols on those bells on that day.

He wrote,

“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!”

But then the soft sentimental thoughts of Christmas bells and Christmas peace are shattered in Longfellow’s mind. Reality sticks its ugly sword into his heart and mind. As war rages and his son lays struck by war’s fury, he begins to confront his sentimentality about peace with the reality of the terror of war.

He went on,

“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!’

Certainly that jolt of reality and the despair that it brings could only result in Longfellow’s response of doubt and fear, and nearly unconquerable loss of hope. As it would want to do in us all.

However, as God most often works in mysterious ways, so it was with Longfellow that day. Perhaps in a brief lull of the pounding cannon fire, he again hears the bells ring forth from the church tower. And with that ringing, God touches his heart with the The Good News that conquers all despair, doubt, and fear.

The bells bring to Longfellow the reassurance that because of Christmas, because God sent His only Son to the world to be our Savior and Light, a Light no darkness can overcome, as bad as human circumstances can become, God’s Peace and His Love are still the strongest forces in the universe.

And so Longfellow concluded and declared the Truth for his time and for all time:

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong will fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

We can only say, “Amen and Amen!” And we can, with sure hope and trusting confidence, join Longfellow in knowing, believing, and sharing with all the world that God’s Gift of Jesus at Christmas is the Power above all powers, the One sure proof that no matter how bad and difficult our circumstances may be, God is with us and for us, and His Love will never fail. It never has. Not even in 2020. And it never will. What Good News for 2021 and beyond.

To all of you in our greater Fayette area and wherever you may be, in this Sure Hope in Christ, I wish you a very Merry Christmas! And a most Happy New Year.

[Kollmeyer is Pastor Emeritus at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Fayetteville. Check out Pastor Scott Ness and this congregation at www.princeofpeacefayette.org. Kollmeyer is also Interim Pastor at Word of God Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg, www.woglutheran.org. His weekly sermons are available on video from this website.]