Sunday, December 26, 2010

day 357: christmas sorrow—“i heard the bells on christmas day”

“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep”:

‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;"

Having a family who is close to us spend their first Christmas without their mother reminds me daily that there are many out there who are hurting, some even despairingly sorrowful, this Christmas. I long to do something, anything, to lessen their pain…and yet I feel inadequate to do so.

Then came our reading in “Stories Behind the Songs of Christmas” about Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “Christmas Bells” poem (today sung as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”). While it did not give me any specific insight into how to reach out to those I love who are hurting this Christmas, it did remind me once again, that God is there—always—and that some day they will hurt less than today…and then later less…though the hollowness will always be there to a certain degree. God will be there.

Christmas 1863 found Longfellow in despair. The Civil War was raging; his wife had died two years previously in a freak accident; and his son returned form the war with severe wounds.

That Christmas Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the poem, “Christmas Bells,” with its well-known words:

“I heard the bells on Christmas day,

Their old, familiar carols play.

And wild and sweet, the words repeat,

Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

In Wadsworth’s original poem, there are two verses about the Civil War, which we do not sing as part of “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The following verse we do sing—and it shows us so clearly the pain that this man faced:

“And in despair, I bowed by 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!’”

The next verse, however, is the one that gives us hope—and the one that I wish I could place within the soul of every hurting person I love (and the one that I needed within my soul just twelve Christmases ago when I could not leave the sofa on Christmas day following the stillbirth of our final baby just two months earlier):

“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!’”

Somehow when you know a fellow traveler has walked the path of sorrow and grief before you—and has come out with words within his heart of the magnitude of this song—you feel the strength from his journey to carry on in your own.

That is what I love about this song—the honesty that yes, this journey felt impossible at times. But he made it to the other side with praise for God and a knowing that “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep!” And those I love will too.

Listen to Casting Crowns sing this incredible song:

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