Christmas Bells

Earlier on this month a friend posted another Christmas song on facebook, and while I had heard it before, I'd never really listened and knew nothing of the background to it. It was Casting Crowns' live version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" which I have posted below...
It is probably better known among my American friends not only in this version, but numerous others, including variations by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Harry Belafonte, Johnny Cash, The Carpenters, Bing Crosby and Bette Midler. Most of them, however, omit the central stanzas of the poem on which it is based... "Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882). That's probably because they refer to the American Civil War which was raging when Longfellow wrote this poem on December 25th 1864. Yet it is the contrast between the dreadful reality of war and the promise of God's peace that lends the real power to this poem.

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!’

"Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace, good will toward men"

Luke 2:14
the angels proclaimed... Yet as Studdert Kennedy, the World War One Chaplain was to write in the midst of that bloody war

“Peace we were pledged, yet blood is ever flowing,
Where on the earth has Peace been ever found?”
Nearly 100 years on that question still hangs in the crisp, Christmas air… In Longfellow's case the contrast of God's promised peace with the reality of war was heightened by a personal sense of loss, namely the tragic death of his wife Fanny three years before, in an accident involving fire which led to extensive burns to Longfellow himself as he sought to save his wife. The first Christmas after Fanny's death, Longfellow wrote,
"How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."
This is an experience many bereaved people have, leaving me, as a pastor, wary of presuming that all my congregation see Christmas as a time of unalloyed joy. A year after the accident, Longfellow went on to write:

"I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence.
Perhaps someday God will give me peace."
Then his journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads, heartbreakingly:

"'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."
If that were not bad enough, almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow, a 19 year old lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church (in Virginia) during the Mine Run Campaign, with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and injuring his spine. There is no entry subsequent entry in Longfellow's journal for Christmas 1863. But then, on Christmas Day of 1864, he wrote the words of the poem above.
Some have suggested that it was written in response to the death of his son from his wounds, but actually his son lived on. Rather the poem is an affirmation of the fact that "God is not dead." That the Son of God, the Prince of Peace, who was born to die, is risen from the dead, offering the hope of peace, not just to us as individuals, but to the whole world.
In this war-torn world, I pray this day that, whatever wounds you carry in heart, body or soul, you may hear, in bells ringing, or choirs singing, the voice of the angels proclaiming peace on earth, and goodwill to all people...
Indeed I pray that you might not simply hear it, but know it to be true.

Have a happy and peaceful Christmas... And enjoy this...


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