“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”


This Christmas season I have been plagued by sleepless nights, a side effect of chemotherapy and other medication. The result has been nightly hours-long binges on Christmas music thanks to a local Christian radio station which features uninterrupted carols and hymns. One night I heard the words to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day in a new musical setting and the meaning of the Christmas carol really struck home.

This new musical arrangement emphasized the contrast between the message of the Christmas bells and the despair and anxiety in the author’s mind.  Since my other nightly distraction is BBC World Service radio with its finger on the pulse on  every problem area in the world, my mind is often filled with same thought:  “There is no peace on earth, I said.”  So I listened carefully to the words:

“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.

I 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.

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.”

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!”

Soon I found myself wondering what had fueled the passion in this poem, so I did some research. During the American Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing. Longfellow was informed by a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left. In November, Charles was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. Longfellow was told that “the wound was very serious one and paralysis might ensue.” In summarizing the ordeal to a friend, the Henry Longfellow wrote, “I have been through a great deal of trouble and anxiety.”

Charles survived his wound. But the crisis of faith brought on by that event, coupled with the recent loss of his wife Frances, who had died as a result of an accidental fire, inspired Longfellow to write – on Christmas Day, 1863 – the words we know as the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Christmas 2015 is now in the past, but the carol still haunts me. Life can truly be the opposite of an “unbroken song of peace.” “Hate is strong” and drowns out a “chant sublime of peace on earth.” But Longfellow learned, as we all must, that “God is not dead.” “God does not sleep.” In the Kingdom of God the “wrong shall fail” and the “right will prevail.”

Our task in 2016 is to remember Who is in control and share that good news with a world that “mocks the song of peace.”  And with that faith, we can rightfully look forward to  the blessings of a “happy new year.”

Bell image by telegraph.co.uk

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2 Responses to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

  1. Kathleen Coveny says:

    I have read this one several times and am so blessed – renewed – rejuvenated.
    Yes, the wrong will fail and the right will prevail. Thanks be to God!
    Thank you, Karen.

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