Why We Need The Bells on Christmas Day

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow sat at his desk, alone. The year was 1863. Christmas Day. The American Civil War raging. In the last few years, he was twice a widower. His oldest son joined the Union cause, only to be wounded and nearly paralyzed. Longfellow, like us, wrestled that Christmas Day over choosing optimism or pessimism to face a world gone mad. How can Christmas bells ring in a world like this?

Pessimism warps into bitterness & cynicism, while optimism proves naive & exhausting. How can we live in a world like this?

I love these words from British Theologian Lesslie Newbigin. These words are freeing, true, and irresistible: “I am neither a pessimist or an optimist, for Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.” What does this mean, except that the worst, even death, doesn’t get the last word? And the good we do enjoy for a time is just an appetizer for the main course. Jesus makes the difference.

Jesus gives hope without asking us to look the other way at the madness. No gimmicks. No smoke & mirrors. Faith is not fanciful. To follow Jesus is to face the world as it really is and ourselves as we really are, yet believing that neither will remain that way. The risen Jesus is on the throne.

And so, with Christmas bells ringing, carolers singing, a war raging within and without, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow made a decision. He began to write these words of resilience, resolve, and redemption. We need the Christmas bells this year to remind us that “peace on earth” is not wishful thinking to those who follow King Jesus. I hope Longfellow’s words encourage you :

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

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries (bell towers) of all Christendom
    Had rolled along
    The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will 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, good-will 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, 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!

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, good-will to men.”

Updated: December 21, 2021

Resources for more history: The Gospel Coalition, American Battlefield Trust

Published by Jared Stacy

Jared is an American Pastor, writer, and PhD Candidate in Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

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