Christians and peace-loving people around the world are struggling today – struggling to find hope in a world filled with violence and hatred.
They see men, women, and children indiscriminately killed by despots and zealots who care nothing about peace. They see soldiers dying in conflicts around the world. At home, we see random killings and senseless violence in the streets of our cities. We see a fractured nation, deeply divided with no common ground in sight, a nation in which rational, civil discourse is gone – replaced by rigid ideology and hateful words.
But our country has gone through much worse.
In 1863, our nation was being ripped apart by a civil war. It was a tragic time, a hopeless time for everyone. One man, in particular, was dealing with personal tragedy, as well. His beloved wife had recently burned to death in a horrific accident. And his son had been seriously wounded in the war. The despair he felt must have been unimaginable.
It’s said that the tolling of the bells on Christmas Day inspired him to write a poem, which he aptly called “Christmas Bells.” His words were later set to music, and together they later became perhaps one of the most beautiful and poignant Christmas carols ever written. Many renditions have been performed over the years, but the ones that stand out in my mind were recorded during the 1950s and 60s when the carol was especially popular.
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is about the promise of Christ’s birth. It’s about hope overcoming hopelessness. It’s about finding light in the darkest of places.
The author began by describing the terror of the war that had been raging for months, gravely wounding his son and decimating the country.
“Then from each accursed mouth
The canon thundered in the South”
He wrote of the hopelessness he felt. How the violence and carnage he witnessed caused him to doubt the Christmas promise of peace, even to scoff at it.
“And in despair, I bowed my head
There is no peace on earth, I said”
Yet in the end, those Christmas bells helped him find hope in his darkest hours.
“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”
Those words, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow more than 150 years ago, are just as meaningful today. We’re fortunate not to be living during those tumultuous times, but even now, there’s no shortage of hatred, and we can hardly say we’re enjoying peace.
Still, Christmas offers us the hope to one day know true peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Longfellow managed to discover and embrace that hope, even while in the deepest pit of despair.
We should all think about that the next time we hear the bells on Christmas Day.