Melodies of Hope
Article

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

James Vore
11.29.2021

The Christmas season serves as a time to remember the birth of our savior, Jesus Christ. Usually, when our calendar flips to December, our first reaction is to start listening to our favorite classic Christmas carols. But have any of us stopped to think about the depth of the lyrics that we’ve been singing every year since we were little? Join us as we adventure through “Melodies of Hope,” a series of several different Christmas carols that dive deep into the scriptures that inspired them.

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Let God have the glory, that we may have the peace. 

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,

    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Luke 2:13-14

Perhaps no time of year puts on display the difference between the idyllic presented life and the reality of living quite as starkly as the Christmas season. Count ten people, and you’ll count ten stories, circumstances, and celebrations. Life is, after all, the simultaneous combination of joy and sorrow, the commingling of what has been lost, what is, and what is hoped for. 

For the Christian, this well of gratitude and grief runs deep, beyond fleeting feelings, into the soul where the presence of something striking exists. (Ecclesiastes 3:11) When we have seen and cannot help but see the impermanence of what is around us, there may be a sense of grief and longing that rushes in to fill the moments where life slows down just long enough for reflection.

So, as we arrive at the twelfth and final month of each year, and the perfect pictures of family dinners, gifts, and matching sweaters fill our eyes, your heart may sink rather than leap. 

And if it does, and if it ever has, hear the cry of the angels today: “Peace to those on whom His favor rests.” 

There is an inherent danger in an article like this that these words or the sentiment behind them, even when coupled with Holy Scripture, can come off as trite, a simple phrase thrown like a bandage towards a heart needing surgery. This is not lost on me, nor am I in any way immune to the tragedy of life that may precipitate such a silent grimace. Instead, it is a paraphrasing of that heavenly declaration that brings me great solace this year. 

“Peace on Earth, goodwill to men.” 

This is the ending line of all seven stanzas of Henry Wordsworth Longfellow’s poem, Christmas Bells. You may know it as the carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and for the sake of dispelling the notion that they are easily stated, here is the entire poem, including the sections traditionally abandoned in our current renditions:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day

Their old, familiar carols play,

and wild and sweet

The words repeat

Of peace on earth, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill 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, goodwill to men.”

Written on Christmas Day, 1863, these words would have almost certainly been accompanied by the same sensation of loss and lament that you may feel this year.

As Longfellow sat in his home and listened to church bells in the distance, the 57-year old widower and father of six had with him a telegram informing him that his eldest had been critically injured in a war pitting his country against itself. Having never fully recovered physically or emotionally from the same fire that took his wife’s life, we can only imagine the agony of the heart that such a telegram delivered with it. And so, has the sound of church bells reached his ears that Christmas morning, a man who had lost, and was losing, even more, began to mock the very idea of peace on earth. 

You see, despair and hope almost always accompany one another, a truth perhaps never more apparent than at Christmas when our need for a savior is most recognizable, and the hope of Jesus is most revealed. The stark difference between what we hope life is and the reality of our days casts our need for Heavenly rescue in sharp contrast, something that David Guzik points out has been evident to observers throughout history: 

(Even the pagans of the first-century world sensed this need for peace and a savior. Epictetus, a first-century pagan writer, expressed this: “While the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief, and envy; he cannot give peace of heart, for which man yearns for more than even outward peace.”)

The world today is not so different. Cultures come and go, languages evolve, wars begin and end, countries expand and contract, and yet the recognition that something is missing and unreachable with hands made of flesh and blood remains. Zecharaiah knew it when he prophesied over his son John:

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;

    for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,

to give his people the knowledge of salvation

    through the forgiveness of their sins,

because of the tender mercy of our God,

    by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven

to shine on those living in darkness

    and in the shadow of death,

to guide our feet into the path of peace.

Luke 1: 76-79

The angels knew it when they sang out a declaration that “the good-will of God toward men, is glory to God in the highest, and peace on the earth.” (Matthew Henry) The shepherds must have sensed it and so lost no time, hurrying off to find the child and then spread the word of Him, and Mary knew it as she carefully secured these truths in her heart to treasure for all time.

The people then, as they were in the time of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and as they are now, required a savior. 

Wherever you are in your faith, whatever you are sitting in or walking through this advent season, whether life has given you a reason to delight, or death has returned to you a season of discontent, remind your soul today that one night in Bethlehem the sky parted, and the Heaven’s declared that the very thing your heart is longing for thousands of years later was then, and is now available.

Many are the miracles of God, but none can bring peace to your heart this Christmas season except his redemption of the world, begun magnificently that night.

Your situation may not change while you’re reading this (although I earnestly pray that it does to the Glory of God), but neither did Longfellow’s. Yet, there is something about that final stanza that lifts my heart as I read it, sitting amidst my pain this season. Despite his grief, despite his suffering, despite his doubt, (and in my imagination with a soft, teary smile), Henry Wordsworth Longfellow confessed and held on to the hope of Jesus: 

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The Wrong shall fail,

The Right prevail,

With peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

May you have that peace.

Waiting Here for You: An Advent Journey of Hope

By Louie Giglio

Waiting Here For You helps us anticipate rather than dread the busy season of Advent and Christmas. A season overflowing with anticipation, Christmas comes the same time each year with great hope and promise of a baby born long ago. But, this season meant for joy is often consumed by busyness, pressure, mixed emotions, and is gone as quickly as it came. What is it all for? In the journey of Advent - a season of expectant waiting and preparation - we find our answer. It’s in the waiting season of Advent that we prepare our hearts to meet December 25 with joy, peace, hope, and promise in our newborn King.

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In the new edition of Waiting Here For You, pastor and author Louie Giglio invites you into an Advent journey of hope to discover that waiting is not wasting when you're waiting on the Lord. Take hold of the chance to uncover the vast hope offered through the season of Advent and find peace and encouragement as anticipation leads toward celebration!

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James Vore

James Vore works on staff at Passion City Church as our Editorial Manager. After graduating from The University of Georgia, James has spent the last decade writing for ESPN, Catalyst, and Passion. He lives in Atlanta with his wife, Victoria, and their two children. He loves movies, being outside, and (like Jed Bartlet before him) will watch almost any sporting event possible.