I’ve heard the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” many times but didn’t pay much attention to the lyrics. I researched the song and learned it was from the poem “Christmas Bells” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poem begins upbeat and makes for what feels like a joyous Christmas song.
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!
Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day 1863 after learning his son was wounded during a battle in the Civil War. Two years before, he lost his wife in a tragic accident in their home. Much of the poem speaks to the grief and burden of war. As the poem comes to a climax, you feel the grief and burden bring the author to a precipice.
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!”
This year, I lived in a similar mindset. I continued to process leaving my previous job. I dealt with strained family relationships and family health issues. I found myself in a leadership position without preparation and didn’t rise to the occasion. Several close friends are no longer as close.
I’m aware troubles and despair are not unique to me. There are thousands who have fled their country and have no where to call home. Others are battling diseases which are trying to kill them. And others walk through the bitterness of losing a loved one.
Yet in the midst of all this, Hope shines from behind the clouds. We see this hope in the conclusion of Longfellow’s poem.
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.”
This brings me to the Christmas story.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.
And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Good news of great joy. You hear the phrase every year from the pulpit and the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. We focus on Christ’s coming to provide salvation. This is a wonderful thing, but it’s easy to forget that he is coming again. He will make all things right. He will restore his creation to what it should be. The mar of sin on this world and in our bodies will be removed.
That is the great joy. We have salvation in Christ and the certainty that all will be made right. That expectation is what let’s us move through each day with something akin to happiness but not dependent on our circumstances. As we grieve and are weighed down, Emmanuel, God With Us, is there to bring comfort.
It is this great joy which pulls us back from the precipice of despair. This great joy turns us around to see the peace we have found in Christ and look to the Day when right will ultimately prevail.
Great joy has come. Good news has come. Emmanuel, Christ the Lord is come.