I Heard the Bells
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!
'Tis the season for carols and bells, and tidings of comfort and joy. It's supposedly the most wonderful time of the year. But each time the Advent season rolls around I'm struck anew by the reality that no one hits the pause button on suffering and sickness and death and evil, just so that we can all have a holly, jolly Christmas.
Just days ago, the seemingly unthinkable took place in Newtown, CT, shattering the lives of 27 families and the sense of security and justice in an entire nation.
Every weekday my friend's father has radiation and chemotherapy treatments invading his body in an attempt to destroy the cancer that is threatening to destroy his body.
Last week I sent my pastor friend and his wife home to spend Christmas with their family in Nigeria, knowing that they face certain persecution and even possible death because of their faith in Christ.
And each day I wrestle with the sickness and sin that are my ever-constant companions.
That hymn, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, originated from a poem penned by New England poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day, 1863. He was a man familiar with suffering. His first wife, Mary, died in 1835 after a miscarriage. His second wife, Frances, died as a result of injuries sustained when her dress caught on fire in 1861. Two years later, in early December of 1863, Longfellow received news that his eldest son, Charley, had been severely injured (nearly paralyzed) by a gunshot wound fighting for the Union in the Civil War. It is on the heels of this news, and in the context of a lifetime of suffering, that Longfellow wrote this poem that juxtaposes the Christmas tidings of peace and the tumultuous ways of this world. The dissonance reaches its climax with these words:
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!"
And many days it would seem that way. It would appear that the world makes a mockery of our God. For if He has come to bring peace, why is there still such evil and violence pervading our world? If He can save and heal and redeem, why are we all so lost and broken and dying?
Longfellow's lament has been echoed through the ages, from the cries of Job, to the psalms of David, to the questions of the disciples after the crucifixion, to the doubts in the hearts of a nation in the wake of a tragedy like Newtown. In despair we bow our heads.
In the allegory series, Tales of the Kingdom, the faithful Rangers often send out a greeting: "How goes the world?"
And the same cry always comes back: "The world goes not well, but the Kingdom comes!"
Since first hearing that cry nearly 15 years ago, it has continued to reverberate in my soul. It is practically a paraphrase of Jesus’ words in John 16:33 where he promises us that we will have trouble in this world, but that he has overcome the world. In one very real sense, there is no peace on earth. The world goes not well.
But in Longfellow’s words, here is the message of Christmas:
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 hear it? The bells are ringing. They are announcing the birth of the King.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David
a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)
The King has already come. And His Kingdom is already coming. Indeed, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The reign of the Prince of Peace has already begun and of its increase there will be no end. And he shall reign forever and ever.
How goes the world? The world goes not well.
But glory to God in the highest – for unto us a Savior has been born. The world goes not well, but the kingdom comes!
amen and amen.