Christmas bells

by Keith Bassham

On Christmas Day 1863, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had little to cheer his own heart. His first wife was long dead, and his second wife had died in a fire a year or two before. Adding to his heartache, his son Charles, who had gone against the wishes of his father and joined the Union Army to fight in the war against the South, had been severely wounded in November. Longfellow’s poetic voice had been quieted for a while, but, as church bells rang their familiar songs, he took up his pen and wrote these grim lines:

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!”

I was thinking of these words as I prepared material for this Tribune and as I reviewed news from around the world. Meteorological typhoons wash over millions, while political, economic, cultural, and societal typhoons leave their own forms of devastation in their wake. Turmoil fills the world and no human solution appears equal to the problems. How many have begun their day breathing the same air of despair Longfellow described?

The poem eventually became a Christmas carol, which strikes me as odd given its dark nature and imagery after the first stanza or two.

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!

The next stanzas describe how the bells sound out a good message, but that the reality of life includes cannons thundering and earthquakes tearing the land apart, leading the poet to conclude:

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!”

But as is the case with so many of the Psalms of David that contain line upon line of complaint and concern for the “way things are,” Mr. Longfellow comes to the same conclusion as David: God is still there, and He has the last say.

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!

And of course it is at this point where Mr. Longfellow could use some help from a prophet like Jeremiah who reveals to us the Source of the peace on earth: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will perform that good thing which I have promised unto the house of Israel and to the house of Judah. In those days, and at that time, will I cause the Branch of righteousness to grow up unto David; and he shall execute judgment and righteousness in the land.” (Jeremiah 33:14-15)

May the Christ of Christmas lift your gaze.