Countdown to Christmas: Day 12. "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The only versions I’ve heard of this song pulls selected stanzas from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Christmas Bells.” Longfellow is asking questions I often ask around this season: Where is this promised peace on earth? Can someone please reveal this lauded “good-will”? It feels like our world is perpetually neck-deep in madness and conflict.

Longfellow felt this deeply, especially as one of his sons was injured fighting for the Union in the Civil War. His poem describes his struggle to reconcile the hope of Christmas with the horror of war.
Here is “Christmas Bells” in its entirety:
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!
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!
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!”
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.”
These lines, over one hundred and fifty years old, are as relevant as ever. The din of ethnic violence, slavery, human trafficking, fear, rage and racism roar above the carol of peace. Conflicts shake the earth with seismic force, tearing homes and nations apart.
And we share the poet’s despair. “There is no peace here. Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Yet, the bells boom the song back to the broken-hearted:
“God is not asleep. Though it’s not today, a day is coming when The Wrong shall fail.
All of it.
Systemic wrongs will unravel.
Individual wrongs will be exposed.
Darkness will be consumed in light.
Peace will vanquish violence.
Life will swallow death.
And love will drown indifference and hostility.
Advent doesn’t merely point us to the Christ who came. It directs us to the Christ who is still coming, coming with tender healing and righteous justice in his holy, nail-scarred hands. In the meantime, I don’t have to understand what God is doing to be fully confident in what God will do on the day that Right prevails.




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Craig Custance