“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”
(Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), 1867)
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.
I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the 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 doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
When I was young, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was one of my favorite carols. I loved both the admission of despair, “For hate is strong…” and I appreciated the simple declaration that the bells made that God had not abandoned Earth to Her children’s squabbling and terror.
Nowadays, I have a greater sense that the world “mocks the song / Of peace on earth, good will to men (sic).” I find Christmas a very difficult time, especially when I hear theologies that say that Jesus of Nazareth came to be the Christ, to bring goodwill, to create peace, and to give good news to the poor…
And then I see that the most common activities of Christmas in North America are driven—compelled—by pride, competition, consumerism, wealth, and fear.
‘And in despair, I bowed my head: / “There is no peace on earth, I said.”’
Peace on earth? Goodwill? Good news for the poor?
So I find I need to stop, and breathe, and find again the meanings I love in Christmas.
While I do not believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the uniquely begotten Son of God, I do love that Jesus’ story and many stories of the Christ are embedded in my heart and mind and always will be.
I love the power of a story of God—a God understood to be transcendent—coming so close to humanity that He became not only human, but an infant human, not only an infant human, but a poor infant human—a poor, infant, human whose mother delivered him among animals; his bassinette was made of straw.
I love the power of a story of this man, rabbi, teacher, preacher who relied on, healed, and befriended (probably married, though we don’t know for sure) women.
I love the power of a story the fruition of which is GOOD NEWS FOR THE POOR.
What is good news for the poor?
I don’t know for sure, as I am not poor, not even broke, and I was raised middle-class. But I can guess that much of our hideously low-wage-paying jobs, our bringing children up to believe that what’s most important about Christmas is “What did you get?”, lack of access to child care and health care of all kinds….these are not good news for the poor.
I love the power of a story the fruition of which is PEACE ON EARTH.
What is peace on earth? What does it even look like?
For my part, the idea of peace among nations feels so far away. And I ask myself, how is Christianity—how are the followers of Jesus of Nazareth the Christ—fostering peace on Earth?
There are wonderful Christian people, places, activities, and ways of being that DO foster peace. And yet we are a far cry from when the early Christians would not take up arms, one against another.
I love the power of a story the fruition of which is GOODWILL.
Goodwill…goodwill to all peoples of Earth. Goodwill brought to conversations that would otherwise end in anger and misunderstanding. Goodwill brought to family gatherings. Goodwill brought to tables of negotiation. Goodwill in the Starbucks line. Goodwill in the grocery store. Goodwill in the unemployment line. Goodwill to those with whom we believe we have the least in common. And, please God, goodwill in our houses and Circles of worship.
And maybe that’s where the end of the song comes in…that we know goodwill is possible because we have experienced it and can bring it to life. And if we know goodwill, can we learn peace? And if we know peace, then we will know justice? And if we know justice, that is truly good news for the poor. And then maybe we will know what Christmas miracles could be.
Merry Christmas, loves.