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 rang the bells more loud and deep // God is not dead, nor does he sleep // The wrong shall fail, the right prevail // With peace on earth, good will to men. – I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Scripture: Luke 2:14, Isaiah 65
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells, the poem that would become the song I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day, during the Civil War after hearing church bells play Hark the Herald Angels Sing. The song, which alludes to Luke 2 (Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men) created a dissonance in his heart; the beauty of the music and celebratory lyrics must have felt disingenuous, offensive even in the midst of war that mocked the peace it declared.
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. The themes of despair, sorrow, and longing probably resonate more deeply with us this year. Protests, black men and women murdered without cause, political upheaval, hospital beds overflowing because of the pandemic, natural disasters. The whole earth seems to be groaning in despair. But Advent is a season in which we enter willingly into the tension of the grief and pain of a broken world while holding tightly to the promise that our God will make all things new.
Unlike vague holiday cheer, Advent does not put on a happy face or overlook pain; it squarely faces the reality of our fallen and sinful world and says God is not dead, nor does he sleep! It is the bells that ring more loudly and clearly reminding Longfellow of this truth. The bells ring every day, day by day declaring that God is with us. He is with us in his word that reveals his character and promises, he is transforming our minds and actions by his Holy Spirit, he is loving us through his body, the Church. He is not dead or asleep, he is Emmanuel, God with us.
But more than simply reminding us that God is with us today, Longfellow reminds us that the wrong shall fail, the right prevail with peace on earth, goodwill to men. In medieval traditions of advent, the themes were not love, joy, peace, and hope, they were death, judgment, heaven and hell. While that sounds intense (and much less Christmas spirit-y) the reason judgment is squarely situated in advent is because the Christian story is oriented around the promise that one day, our God will set right all things that have been broken. Judgment sounds frightening, but in reality, it is just judgment (justice) that our culture so desperately craves. We long for the broken things to be fixed, for hate and sin to be conquered once and for all, for righteousness to rule. And this is what Longfellow points to. Our God is not dead or asleep, he is with us, and he promises to return, make all things new, and to wipe away every tear (Rev 21).
Today, as we see the brokenness and despair in our world, we are invited to be bell ringers who testify to God’s presence and promises. He is with us today in our midst by his Spirit and one day, in the advent we long for and anticipate, the wrong shall fail once and for all, and the right prevail for all eternity with peace forevermore.
Today, we ring the bells, rejoicing in a minor key, rejoicing while we are still weeping because we know for certain that one day all things will be made right. This is the Christian witness as people who live in between Advents: ring the bells, more loudly and deeply, that our god is alive, with us, for us, and returning to make all things new.
Reflect: In what ways can you ring the bells of hope and the promises of God in your life?
Pray: Heavenly Father, help us to wait in the tension, acknowledging the suffering of our world, its need for mercy and hope, lamenting the pain of sin and death, but also hold fast to your promises. Give me joy and hope in your promise that you will return and make all things new. Amen.
Listen: I Heard the Bells