I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is regarded as one of the greatest writers produced by the New World. Longfellow was in school by age three, reading classic literature by age six, and by age nineteen, a college graduate and professor of modern language at Bowdoin College. A man of faith and stature, Longfellow seemed to have all of his ducks in a row. �
In 1834 Longfellow, married three years, was offered and accepted a position at Harvard. Within a year his wife became ill and died. Suddenly shaken, Longfellow poured what was left of himself into teaching. Seven years later he was at peace enough to remarry. Re-established yet scarred, Longfellow became a faithful husband and father. During this twenty-or-so year period, Longfellow wrote many of his most famous works such as The Song of Hiawatha and Evangeline. He was wealthy and famous, again seemingly with all his ducks in a row.
Tragedy dealt a double blow to Longfellow in the several years that followed. In 1861 his second wife died in a fire caused by lighting a match which caught her clothes on fire. While still reeling from this pain, the Civil War began, and Longfellow’s son was wounded in battle and sent home to recuperate. Seeing others wounded like his son and grieving parents whose sons would not come home, Longfellow pleaded with God, “Where is the peace?” His cry for peace was most certainly not limited to the conflict in the States at the time, but also the peace he needed from having his life turned upside down yet again.
Longfellow’s pen poured out the sorrow and rage he was experiencing that Christmas (1863), and I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day was birthed. One of the darker hymns that is sung around Christmas, the tolls of the poem trace a faith that is shaken by the ways and wars of the world. Longfellow proclaimed, “There is no peace on earth.” Hatred and sorrow “mocked” the Christmas message of “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
As the poem continues wallowing in the war, strife, and chaos around Longfellow, hope shines as the remembrance of in what, or rather in whom, his faith was truly grounded. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:” For some this seems at best a transitional line, but it may be the most poignant line of the song. Longfellow had to find his own peace, a peace which was shaken from him by several tragic events that took love, security, and order away from him. His peace had to be with God, and, somewhere in the crafting of this beautiful poem, he looked deep to his belief in God and who God is. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.”
Paired with music in the 1880’s, this hymn has encouraged many believers through many conflicts, both military and civilian. 2020 has been a year which has shaken our security, order, and, unfortunately, love for one another. Yet, we as believers must remember and hold fast to the fact that we serve a living God who neither slumbers nor sleeps. Nothing surprises God. While we wish for this long nightmare to be over, let us not lose our faith that God does not change, and He loves us even more than we love ourselves. Our security is not gone – it is in Him. Our help is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth. Our order is not gone – we have been re-ordered as believers in Jesus Christ to make Christ known to the earth as our primary goal. Our love for things – experiences, material goods – is being replaced with a love for one another.
The Sanctuary choir is busy preparing this year’s Christmas concert (yes, Virginia, there is a Christmas concert) for December 20 at 6:00 p.m. We invite all of you to come – it is socially distanced the same as our worship services, and we are modifying the concert to be a bit shorter than usual. It is entitled A New Day. Honestly, the theme originally came from the desire to rid the world of all that is 2020. But, most certainly, God reigns just as He has always reigned, and there is purpose behind this perceived madness. As I wish you peace, love, joy, and hope this Advent and Christmas season, my greatest hope is that in all of what we have been and are going through, we would see Jesus.
When our life is darkest night, hope has burned away,
Love, your ray of guiding light, show us the new day.
Love of all things great and small,
leaving none, embracing all,
Fold around me where I fall, bring in the new day.
This new day will be a turning point for everyone,
If we let the Christ-child in and reach for the new day.
Christ, the Way, the Truth, the Life,
healing sadness, ending strife,
You we welcome, Lord of Life. You are the New Day.
~ Jeremy Gaines