“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep …”

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In 1863 the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells, later turned into the Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by John Baptiste Calkin and others. Longfellow at the time found himself in the midst of great sadness dealing with the recent death of his wife and the serious injury of his son, Charles, in one of the battles of the American civil war. As he hears the bells on Christmas Day, the poet also hears the canons thundering in the South, 
and with the sound,
the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

And so he reacts with a moment of anguish,

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 Longfellow does not stay in that place of emptiness and grief. Instead, he hears the bells chime out once again and he finds his faith in God and the ultimate victory of good or evil renewed as he recalls the reason for the ringing of the bells:
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!”

One cannot but begin to share the sadness and anguish of Longfellow’s words as we prepare to hear the bells of Christmas Day this year. Many, like myself, have stood off from afar these past ten days and heard the echoes of the guns which thundered in the town of Newtown CT on December 14. We have heard the bells peal as families buried the twenty children and six adults who were murdered in the senseless slaughter. Just this past Friday, we were all invited to join in a moment of silence at 9:30 AM and then listen to the toll of the bells twenty-six times.  We cannot help but say, at moments like this, that “hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace …”
But, we also know, deep in our hearts that love is stronger than hate. We know this not only because of all of the good people and good deeds and good things that we have known that far outweigh the evil we see, but also because we are people of faith. Faith tells us that God did not order the world towards evil but towards the good. Faith tells us that it is not God who brings evil into the world but man. Faith tells us that God did not desire to leave us in a world fraught only with the randomness of evil and death but that He gave us the greatest gift of all; “For God so loved the world, that He gave us his only Son ….” Faith tells us that even in those moments when God can seem so far away, when evil can seem to be victorious, God’s ultimate victory is still assured. We need only look to the ultimate evil of Jesus’ death on the Cross and the victory of His resurrection to be assured of this.
And so one hears the bells on Christmas Day not as the mourning bells of the funeral’s toll but as the definitive voice of goodness crying forth that right can and will prevail against evil, even if at times, it is difficult to hear.

[Note: I came across this blogpost as I was writing my own post and looking for various musical versions of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It seems others share my thoughts as well.] 



1 Comment. Leave new

I keep saying this is the best song for all of us this Christmas. Thank you bishop