Posted by: rcottrill | January 31, 2011

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Words: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (b. Feb. 27, 1807; d. Mar. 24, 1882)
Music: Waltham, by John Baptiste Calkin (b. Mar. 16, 1827; d. May 15, 1905)

Wordwise Hymns
Discovering the Songs of Christmas (pp. 242-244)
The Cyber Hymnal

Candles, decorated evergreen trees, holly, poinsettias, candy canes–we have many traditional symbols and adornments of the Christmas season. Another is bells. Dickens writes of their exuberant sound on Christmas morning, in A Christmas Carol, after Scrooge’s night with the three spirits. But an even stronger connection with bells is made by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s hymn.

Henry Longfellow was not only the most prominent American poet of his day, but was a great scholar, and a committed family man. However, the latter aspect of his life was repeatedly touched by tragedy. His wife took sick and died. Some years later, he married again, but his second wife was killed when her clothes accidentally caught fire while lighting a match.

The time when the words of our song were written has an important bearing on its message. The American Civil War (1861-1865) had been dragging on, with the death toll mounting horrendously. Longfellow’s nineteen-year-old son Charles was wounded in action, and sent home to recuperate. When the effects of the national conflict came within the walls of his own home, the poet’s despair and anger mounted. Would there ever be peace?

For the children of the Unitarian Church of the Disciples, in Boston, Longfellow wrote a poem on Christmas Day in 1863 that he entitled “Christmas Bells.” Two stanzas of the original seven are omitted from what later became the carol, but they give the poem its wartime context. The following lines come just before “And in despair I bowed my head…” (CH-4) in the poem.

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.

Christmas bells, of course, are intended as expression of joyful celebration. But what if there seems to be nothing that we can be joyful about? Then, they simply seem to mock our struggle with their insistent gaiety. Four things to keep in mind, briefly:

1) We can still look back on the birth of Christ with joy. “The Father has sent the Son as the Saviour of the world” (I Jn. 5:14). And it is still true that we can know our sins forgiven and receive the gift of eternal life, through faith in Him (Jn. 3:16; Eph. 1:7). It is still true that “believing, [we can] rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory” (I Pet. 1:8).

2) Though there is not yet universal peace on earth, Christians “have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). “We were reconciled to God through the death of His Son” (vs. 10). As well as peace with God, we can have the peace of God reigning within, as we commit our troubles and anxieties to Him in prayer (Phil. 4:6-7).

3) It is quite true that “God is not dead” (CH-5), otherwise the entire universe would descend into chaos and cease to exist. It is the Lord through whom “all things consist [are held together and continue to endure]” (Col. 1:17). He is “upholding [sustaining and supporting] all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). Nor is God asleep on the job (Ps. 121:3-4).

4) It is also true that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail” (CH-5). One day Christ, who is the “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6), will return to set up His kingdom on this earth. He will put down His enemies and bring in a reign of peace and blessing. A great deal is said about this in the prophetic Scriptures (e.g. Isa. 2:4; 32:17-18; 54:13-14; 55:12; 60:18; Ezek. 28:25-26; 34:25, 28; Mic. 4:2-3; Zech. 9:10). Praise the Lord!

1) Christmas often seems to be a depressing and disheartening time for many. Why do you think this is?

2) What practical suggestions do you have for making Christmas a truly joyous time, that still leaves room for the painful realities of life?

Wordwise Hymns
Discovering the Songs of Christmas (pp. 242-244)
The Cyber Hymnal


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