“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!”
Those are the first two verses of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” a song often sung this time of year. The lyrics are actually a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Longfellow wrote this days after learning tragic news. His eldest child, Charles, had been seriously wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church during the Civil War. Longfellow’s wife, Frances, had died in a tragic fire, having been burned alive after a lit candle fell on her dress. Longfellow’s first wife had died in childbirth and after Frances’ death, Longfellow clung protectively to their eldest child.
In a letter dated March 14, 1863, Charles informed his father that he had joined the Union Army where he would quickly get promoted to lieutenant. “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer,” Charles wrote. “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”
On Christmas Day 1863, with the Confederacy seemingly on the verge of winning, the Union on the verge of collapse, the memories of his dead wives weighing on him, and the mortality of his son looming, Longfellow wrote verse.
“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!’”
At a time of year we want to make others happy, but sometimes the bank account is low, the credit cards maxed out, and strain of wants burdens us. The self-imposed stresses of Christmas and the trials of the year make Longfellow’s pain in verse so real.
In April, I lay near death in a hospital with multiple blood clots in my lungs and multiple doctors telling me I should be dead. While I was in ICU struggling for breath, a doctor told my wife she had a growth in her lungs. In June, that growth and another were removed. In September, doctors confirmed she has a rare form of lung cancer.
Times like this make you realize there is a theology of suffering. We make our lives antiseptic and comfortable. We euthanize and abort to avoid pain, discomfort, and inconvenience. But to be human is to suffer and to be inconvenienced. Our suffering is the greatest personal ministry we can give others.
Through our suffering, others find use and value and appreciate their own lives. Others draw strength from our struggle. Those of us who suffer grow more tender toward others.
All of this suffering runs through a manger in Bethlehem where a baby was born to die. From a manger, Christ fled as a refugee. Other children were slaughtered in his place. Then he suffered. On the cross he was the greatest sinner who ever lived as all our sins were piled on him. So great were those sins in one place, at one time, that the earth quaked and the sun refused to shine. But through his suffering we have redemption and in our suffering we know we can prevail as he prevailed for us.
If the Christmas season overwhelms you, consider how overwhelming it must have been to Mary. If you are suffering, consider the child born to die. Christmas should not burden us, but unburden us. That is the meaning of this season. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, in his grief, worry, and doubt knew that as he heard the Christmas bells ringing.
On Christmas Day 1863, under the weight of that worry and grief, he concluded his poem thusly, “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.’”