As we played our Christmas CD’s this year, one song grabbed my attention. ‘I heard the bells on Christmas Day’ was originally a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on the 25th of December 1863. It’s not your typical Christmas song. It’s both sad and honest, asking ‘Where is the peace on earth that was promised by the angelic song in Luke Ch 2:14?’ Perhaps it’s a question you have been asking yourself. 2016 has been a year of upsets and anxiety both internationally as well as here in South Africa. There is every chance that you may have felt some of that burden in your own life this year too. If so, perhaps Henry Longfellow’s story, and his honest reflections of faith, will help you express gratitude to God without the pretense of trite Christmas platitudes. The poem begins with these words;

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!

Words which Henry Longfellow believed to be true, despite deep personal sadness. Only two years before his wife had died in a fire, despite Henry’s attempts to save her. He was also badly burned, and grew a beard to cover his scars. At the age of 55, he was left to raise their 6 children alone. But the dissonance between the angel’s song and his own experience was about to grow more acute. In 1863 his eldest son Charles ran away from home to join the Union Army and fight in the American Civil War. Charles was just 18 years old at the time. After his first battle, he fell ill with typhoid fever. Once he had recovered and returned to the front, he was shot and wounded. The bullet grazed his spine and he barely escaped paralysis. Henry received the news of his son’s injury only a month before Christmas. As his country was being torn apart by a bloody civil war, and with his own son one of the casualties, he added these verses;

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!”

And yet despite what he saw around him, he entrusted himself to the Christmas gospel. That God is not absent in our pain, but has intervened by sending His own Son. Rather than abandon us, Jesus comes to join us. The incarnation, that God Himself would become like one of us, tells us that in the midst of war, illness and death, God puts His love for us into action. He gives us His best while we

are at our worst. The final verse of the poem reads;

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.”

By coming to earth, Jesus experienced this broken world first hand (Isaiah 53:3). However, He came not just to sympathise, but to reconcile us to the God we have rejected. The good news of the angel’s song is that peace with God is within our grasp, even while the world is groaning under the weight of sin. There is no circumstance or suffering that can undo what Christ has come to do (Romans 8:37-39). The arrival of Jesus ensures that God’s plan to restore this world is not in vain. It means there is a guarantee for those who trust in Christ for peace with God. What began at His first coming will be realised in full at His second coming, ‘that wrong shall fail and right prevail’. Henry Longfellow was able to express in his poem what we learn at the manger; to know the peace that comes at Christmas doesn’t require that we shut our eyes to the troubles around us. Rather, that we open them wider still. To see the overlap between a world in chaos and the arrival of the one who brings real peace, doesn’t discredit the gospel, it makes it all the more compelling. At our point of greatest need, God meets us with His greatest gift; Jesus, the One who makes peace between man and God.

Written by Scott Tubman. Original article can be found here.