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

Oh Come, All Ye Faithful

And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. – Luke 2:36-38

Anna finds herself among the overlooked saints of scripture. Her name appears among the ranks of the angels, magi, and shepherds as she rightly recognizes Jesus as the Christ. Like the women at the empty tomb, Anna is the bearer of incredible news, and yet, not many of us know of Anna, the prophetess. It’s easy to see why; an elderly widow from a forgotten tribe is forgettable enough. But these three verses of God’s word tell us a story about what our God values. These verses tell a brief and lovely story of a faithful worshipper, and we have much to learn from her.

The Prophetess Anna at the Temple, Rembrandt

Waiting with patience. As a battered Israel wondered when God’s promises for a messiah might be fulfilled, Anna remained faithful to her God, not departing from the temple. But the word for depart has political undertones, meaning she had not deserted the temple. She had not deserted her faith in Yahweh, but was patiently waiting for the redemption of Israel and for her God to fulfill his promises to his people. Today, our situation is not so different from Anna’s. We find ourselves in a similar time of in-between the first and second comings of Christ. While we don’t know much about how the rest of Israel waited, Anna shows us that faithful waiting is indeed possible and that must tune our hearts to desire the coming of his kingdom.

Waiting in worship. While Anna waited, she worshipped through fasting and prayer. As a widow who probably did not have children, Anna’s life would have been seen as deficient. And yet in Anna we see a robust, adoring heart that does not cease to seek the one she loves. Through prayer and fasting she petitions God to fulfill his promises and tunes her own heart to hunger after her God more than anything else. This is the same posture we ought to take in our own in-between time: a worshipful heart that pursues our God day and night, praying for his kingdom to come and his will to be done. 

Joyful and triumphant. Anna’s life was probably not marked by much joy or triumph. The song goes, Oh come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant, oh come ye, oh come ye to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the King of angels. Oh come let us adore him. Who are the ones that this song tells us about? The faithful, joyful, triumphant ones? Anna. This song is about Anna and those who are like her. Who do not desert the faith, who seek the Lord through prayer and fasting, who long to see his kingdom come, whose hearts are tuned towards adoration. After years of waiting, Anna sees the fulfillment of the promised Messiah and he is her joy and triumph. May we too be like Anna; those who wait expectantly for our coming King in humble adoration. 

Reflect: What does worship mean to you? How does worship lead you to adoration?

Pray: Heavenly Father, we thank you that you see each of us, no matter how unimportant or insignificant we feel. You hear each of our prayers, know our hearts, and delight in us as your children. Give us joy in our waiting and worship as we draw near to you this advent season. Open our hearts to long for you and desire your kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.

Listen: Oh Come, All Ye Faithful