The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

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

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices // For yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn – O Holy Night

A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:5

This December we find ourselves partakers of a weary world. We are discouraged, downtrodden, exhausted, and afraid. For the past year, we have sheltered in our homes, watched social and political unrest in our streets, lost jobs, faced natural disasters. Our world seems to be crumbling around us, and we are weary. Though the Christmas season doesn’t usually bring to mind lament and longing—we prefer to cling to phrases like “Merry and Bright” and “Joyful Joyful,” advent meets the longing of weary people in a weary world with the thrill of hope and the promise of rejoicing. 

Though today I find myself placing hope in a vaccine that will end the pandemic and rejoicing in an intense year coming to a close, these are not the promises that we long for in the advent season. The thrill of hope in advent is that our God has drawn near to us in the person of Christ. At Christmas, we celebrate the first advent, the first coming of Jesus into our world as a light shining in the darkness. Our God chooses to enter into our weary state in order that a new and glorious morn might dawn. 

But today we also live between advents, between comings. Jesus has come and ascended, but he promises he will return. And this is the thrill of hope we must cling to today, that our God has entered into our darkness once to redeem us, but he will do it again to bring us once and for all into his glorious light. That the light shines in the darkness, and no matter how bad a year can be, the darkness will not overcome it. This is what we rejoice in when we find ourselves weary—that our God has promised to come again and make all things right, and he is faithful. 

May we rejoice knowing the light still shines in the darkness, and may our hope be in the promises of our good King Jesus.

Reflect: What are you hoping for in this season?

Pray: Jesus, I confess that I place my hope in so many things other than you. Open my heart that I might know the hope of your promises, give me endurance to hold fast to the hope of the gospel, and fix my gaze upon the hope of your unfailing love. Amen.

Listen: O Holy Night