Thursday, March 25, 2021

We Can Hear the Bells – and It’s Not Even Christmas

Christmas is still nine months away. I don’t want to cause you to panic. The Christmas decorations shouldn’t be up until May, April at the earliest. But I heard an account about a famous Christmas carol that can’t wait. It carries a poignant message that fits where we are today.

We all know the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a much-celebrated poet and literary critic. Longfellow’s probably best known for poems such as “Paul Revere’s Ride” and “Song of Hiawatha,” but his poem-turned-carol resonates with many of us. Considering the story behind this heartwarming holiday favorite, which traces back to the Civil War, makes it even more meaningful. 


In 1861, Longfellow’s wife Fannie died after her dress caught on fire. Henry, awakened from a nap by her screams, had attempted to extinguish the flames, first with a rug and then with his body. However, Fannie already had suffered severe burns and passed away the following morning. Henry’s own burns were so serious he was unable to attend her funeral.


While still mourning his wife’s death, Longfellow experienced more family heartache in March 1863. His 18-year-old son Charles Appleton Wadsworth (known as Charley), the oldest of the six children, left their Cambridge, Mass. home to enlist in the Union army to fight in the Civil War. Charley soon merited a commission as a second lieutenant, but before he could see combat contracted “camp fever,” one of several forms of serious illnesses, and returned home for several months to recover.


The young man overcame the disease and rejoined his unit in August 1863. His father was dining alone in December when he received word that Charley had been severely wounded in the Mine Run campaign in Virginia. Longfellow and another son, Ernest, went to Washington, D.C. to be by Charley’s side when he arrived from the battlefield for treatment. The initial grim diagnosis that “paralysis might ensue” was changed to a more favorable report that Charley would recover, but would be “long in healing.”


Back in Cambridge on Dec. 25, 1863, Longfellow, then a 57-year-old widowed father of six, began to write a poem to capture his depth of feelings, not only for his loss and the pain of seeing his suffering son, but also to capture his despair over the turmoil of a nation divided against itself in a bloody civil war. 


As he was reflecting on all of this, Longfellow heard church bells ringing and the singing of “peace on earth.” Here are the original words from his poem, which was later set to music:

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!

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."


Can you visualize this emotionally tortured man, grieving for his wife, shattered by the narrow escape of his oldest son from paralysis or even death, and wounded by his beloved United States of America being torn apart by strife and disunity? But then he heard the ringing of the bells, lifting his spirits and renewing his hope. We need not wait for Christmas. We can all cling to the closing words of Longfellow’s poem, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.” 


In Luke 2:14, we’re told one of the reasons Jesus Christ came was to bring, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Another translation says, “on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased!” With discord and conflict so pervasive, we could use a huge dose of the peace that can come only a life-changing, transforming relationship with the Lord, the “peace of God that transcends all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). 


Jesus assured His followers, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid” (John 14:27). Years ago a popular song told of “looking for love in all the wrong places.” Apparently, as Longfellow observed in his now-famous poem, many of us are looking for peace in all the wrong places, too.


By trusting in Christ, even in the most dire, seemingly hopeless moments, there is always eternal hope. As Titus 2:13 expresses it, looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.” 

No comments: