Last year I added a new “favourite” carol to my list of favourite Christmas carols – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. It was partly the arrangement done by Casting Crowns, and partly the story behind it the original lyrics
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow composed the words to this song on Christmas Day, 1864. It was originally a poem with references to the American Civil War, but those stanzas were removed or revised, and the well-known tune was penned by John Baptiste Calkin in 1872. Longfellow wrote his poem months before General Lee’s surrender to General Grant in April, 1865. He was reflecting on the war and the despair in his own life, having lost his beloved wife, and the crippling of his son from injuries sustained in the war.
In particular, the lyrics from verse 2 caught my attention:
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, goodwill to men.
Longfellow speaks of the darkness and hopelessness in his world. In view of events in our world, particularly the indescribable horror in Connecticut last week, there seems to be a never-ending and abundant supply of reasons to despair. For hate is strong and mocks the song…
But Longfellow didn’t end the song here. He went on to write:
Then rang 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.
Then ringing singing on its way. The world revolved from night to day.
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime – of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
I have no answers to the hardest question – why. So if I say that I simply choose to trust that God will somehow turn the “night to day”, will you think I am naïve, or weak, or deluded? I call it faith. I have seen God redeem pain in people’s lives, even though they are forever changed by it. My heart is broken for Newtown, and if my heart is broken, how much more is God’s heart broken. I am praying for God’s grace to pour out over this community, and over our world. And while I pray, my ears are straining for the bells.