The Message of the Bells

by Rebecca D. Higgins

christmasbells1 (2)The gold-plated weighted stocking hangers on my mantle are letters that spell out the word J-0-Y. I’ll be honest–this past week “Joy to the World” hasn’t exactly been the song bursting from my lips! While Scripture talks about making a joyful noise to the Lord, I’m not sure that the noises that have been emitting from my mouth have sounded joyful at all. Can groans and moans be joyful?

The groaning has come not only in response to excruciating physical pain caused by a kidney stone, but also as I have heard reports this week from various places of pain inflicted on others by injustice and hasty judgments and as I contemplate the wars still impacting so many in our world. It hurts me to see others hurt.

I find myself identifying this Christmas season with the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (a lifelong favorite, by the way). After the death of his beloved wife Fanny in a tragic fire that left the poet badly burned and scarred in 1861, Longfellow lost a bit of his ability to get into the Christmas spirit. In his 1861 journal, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are the holidays.” The following year still suffering from his personal loss and the ravages of the ongoing Civil War, his Christmas journal entry was stark: “A Merry Christmas say the children, but that is no more for me.” There was no journal entry the following Christmas, the year that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union army, was severely injured in the war.

On Christmas Day in 1864, as Longfellow awoke to the sound of church bells, a joyous sound that seemed to be mocking him, all of the emotions of the past few years pressed in as he wrestled with faith in the midst of sorrow and injustice. He penned the words to a poem he titled “Christmas Bells.” His melancholy mood comes through in the words, “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, goodwill to men.” And I will admit that sometimes in weeks like this those words do seem to express reality.

However, as the bells continued to ring–their song of hope, of joy, of peace–Longfellow was reminded that the message of Christmas is that God in His love and mercy did not turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to a groaning, moaning world filled with injustice and hate. Instead, He entered it as one of us. He came as the Prince of Peace but suffered through false accusations, a mock trial, an excruciating death, but a triumphant resurrection. In so doing, He became our Redeemer.

In listening to the song of the bells Longfellow was finally able to state with faith and certainty what he knew to be true no matter what things “seemed” to be–a fact that is still true for us today. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth goodwill to men.” We may not see the right prevail exactly at the time we would choose, but one day all WILL be made right and PEACE will reign!

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this” (Isaiah 9:6-7 NIV).

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