Words by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, with alterations and *additional text by Harlan D. Sorrell.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play;
In music sweet the tones repeat,
“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’ unbroken song
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 does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
*When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Then happy, singing on your way,
Your world will change from night to day;
Your heart will feel the message real,
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Some Christmas Carols are the joyous outpouring of Christmas cheer, filled with the laughter of wonder of the season. Others are forged in pain and doubt that has been turned to the light of hope and renewal. Such is the story behind this hymn. http://suvcw.org/mollus/art005.ht
The famous American poet, H. W. Longfellow had lost his wife in a tragic fire just three years before he nearly lost his son in the horrors of the Civil War. When his son was severely wounded in battle, Longfellow went to the military hospital, and, when he could, he transported his son home, knowing the journey would be painful and the outcome might not be a happy one. (His son lived, but never recovered fully– see the article above.)
As he sat with his wounded son over the Christmas season, he could hear the bustle and chatter, and the bells ringing from the church steeples, announcing the good news of Christmas. As his pain and bitterness churned, he wrote about it, and about how his heart was turned from bitterness to hope. (See the original poem here: https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Poetry/christmas_bells.htm
Christmas is a time of warmth and good cheer for many–the ringing of bells, the singing of merry tunes, the tinsel and glitter of decorations–but for others, it is a time of deep soul-searching. “My life is a mess. I have suffered greatly. There is no Peace On Earth!” Yet, the hope and promise of Christmas rings out greater than the darkness and the blast of gunfire, the angry outcries and the weeping of those in grief.
How can this be?
Christmas reminds us that our circumstances, though very real and very painful, are confined to this time and space. They are temporary– not in the sense that we will forget our pain or loss– but that we can still experience hope and joy and healing in their midst. “The Wrong shall fail”–there will still be evil in the world, injustice, hunger, abuse, sickness–wrong will still exist, but it does not have the power to define us, to enslave us and take away our ability to do good. “The Right, prevail”–God’s promise of Messiah (among several hundred other prophetic promises!) has been fulfilled. God is Faithful. God’s word endures. God’s Justice Will Be Done, and there will be “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men.”
Christmas also reminds us that it is just in those very small things– the tolling of bells, being able to hug your child, to share memories of loved ones who are no longer here, being grateful for small gifts, giving a word of encouragement–that hope and joy are spread like ripples of water and echoes of sound. Christ’s birth was humble, but it was heralded with the hosts of angels from the highest heavens.
My prayer today is that we would listen for the true message of Christmas, and that we would echo and repeat the message– even if it seems that we are being drowned out by sirens and protests, or silenced by those who are hurting and cannot hear the sweetness in the music of the season.