“Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
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!”
John Baptiste Calken put the above poem to music in 1872. It became known as the Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day in 1864.
Longfellow’s words reflect his despair over the years of the Civil War and the events in his life during the war. Students of Longfellow died in the war. His son Charles sustained crippling injuries in battle. On July 10, 1861 his wife Fannie tragically died. The day before she cut the hair of their seven year old daughter, Edith. She wanted to save clippings in sealing wax. While melting a bar of wax some hot wax fell on her dress, catching the dress on fire. Fannie ran into the library to her husband. Longfellow desperately tried to put out the fire. He was finally able to put out the fire. Fannie died the next day. Longfellow bore scars on his arms and face the rest of his life.
Overwhelmed with grief, Longfellow’s works became darker. He wrote on Christmas Day in 1861, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” One year after Fannie’s death he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” On Christmas Day, 1862, his journal entry reads, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Longfellow’s son Charles was shot between the shoulder blades in battle in 1863 causing a crippling spine injury. Christmas Day 1863 Longfellow’s journal is silent.
On Christmas Day 1864 Longfellow opened a window. He heard the church bells ringing. With the angels’ song to the shepherds in Luke 2:14 he wrote “Christmas Bells.” The poem begins with the beauty and wondrous hope of the angels’ song. War follows. The song is drowned out by the sounds and sufferings of war. There is no peace. Hope returns in the last stanza. “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep! The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to men!”1
Most of us understand the struggle of Longfellow heard in “Christmas Bells.” War, poverty, suffering, our dear children fighting cancer, what struggle may be happening in your life today, we understand. “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘for hate is strong, And mocks the son Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” Longfellow wrote.
Centuries before Longfellow another poet wrote, “Awake, O Lord! Why do you sleep? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression? We are brought down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground” (Psalm 44:23-25).
Longfellow’s despair and hopelessness in “Christmas Bells” give way to faith and hope. Nothing had changed. His wife was still dead. Charles, his son, was still crippled. The war was still raging. “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!’” The psalmist also renewed his faith and hope in God. “Rise up and help us; redeem us because of your unfailing love” (Psalm 44:26).
The angels’ song was not in vain. With the Child born in Bethlehem came the light of God’s grace and the hope of his salvation. God’s light came into the darkness. In the great battle on the cross and in the grave, Jesus Christ wan the victory. The chains of death have been broken. The hope of life has been given.
The enemy is still lurking. Skirmishes are still being fault, often fierce and deadly. Yet for the children of God in Christ there is peace and hope is sure. “And through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:20).
So often in Scripture the strongest statements of peace and comfort, of hope and life, are made in the midst of suffering. For the sake of space I ask you to read in your Bible Lamentations 3:19-25. Also read the words of the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.
Notice the change in Paul’s attitude. Quoting Longfellow, “God is not dead; nor doth he sleep!” Paul knew peace and hope through the assurance of Christ’s presence even in the most difficult times. Christ was not simply present. He was strengthening Paul, enabling him to persevere. Paul was not alone in the darkness. Rather within the darkness the light of Christ shone in Paul’s heart.
How many of you reading this have yourselves spoken the thoughts of Longfellow? “And in despair I bowed my head; ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said.” How many have spoken the very words of Longfellow in his journal? “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”
In the midst of the darkness the light of Christ shines. It is light seen only through faith, but it is bright. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Faith can be a strange thing. Faith summons every ounce of strength we have to trust when it seems there is no one to trust. Yet faith depends more on the One it trusts then the strength of that trust. No matter how weak you feel, how weak you are, even with faith as small as a mustard seed, trust in Christ. His grace is sufficient. As difficult as it is to grasp in a world where power and might are worshiped, Christ’s strengthening power is perfected in your weakness.
Don’t beat up yourself thinking, “I must be stronger.” Trust in Christ. You are weak but his strength sustains. Open your heart to God. Shake your fist. He understands. When the crying and anger reach their peak, God takes you in his arms and holds tight.
As you face the holidays, as you walk numbly through life, remember. Remember the past–the bad and the good. They are all part of who you are. As painful as the good memories can be, oh how you need those memories. Do something loving and unselfish for somebody. Draw on the strength and hope that comes from good friends and family.
No matter where you have been, here is where you are now. Know, believe, trust, Christ has not forsaken you. Now, yes, he gives you strength, peace, and hope. Keep going forward, reaching to him, and trusting him.
Christ is our peace and our hope.
1Unfortunately I do not remember my source for the events of Longfellow’s writing of “Christmas Bells.”