I’ve been mulling over the old song “I heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” For some time I’ve thought that the most poignant words were “For hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will towards men.” Poignant because it is so true; not the deepest truth, as the song goes on to illustrate, but yet so very true.
More recently, however, I learned that the version we sing is missing two verses of the original. Written during the American Civil War, this song as originally sung does not merely give a hat tip to hatred and despair, but is centered on the very real experience of darkness and its powerful hand.
I appreciate narratives that hold both the joy and the pain of life together as one, which is how we receive them in our daily lives. So this song is even more meaningful to me now that I realize the author was far closer to the hate he describes than I can imagine. The Good News is powerful not because it is the only news, but because the earth is saturated with so much painful news that came before it, and groans for redemption.
As I write this, our nation is griped in shock and grief as the news pours in of nearly thirty innocent people, mostly small children, violently, purposely shot dead today in an elementary school. The world has gone mad, we are broken, so very very broken, and there is no way anything we do will ever put this to rights ever again.
I am reading the horrible, painful news as Christmas music plays in the background and it is at once a jarring and poignant juxtaposition. The mythical version of Christmas where all is peace and jolliness is simply of no use at a time like this; it smacks of the sort of naivety that leads quickly to its counterpart, cynicism, both of which are useless to stem the tide of evil and suffering.
But the real Christmas story, the one in which God himself comes and takes on flesh in the form of a baby, a human, a fellow sufferer, with all that this entails; and that he does so to set into motion a path that leads to the redemption of earth and body and soul – this is the good news that is being sung in my Christmas songs, and it is the sort that we need today and every day.
This news is not good because it puts a candy-coating on life to avoid seeing the problems. This news is good because it has looked so deeply and entirely at the pain and answered back with a force every bit as loud and strong and life changing.
I heard the bells on Christmas DayTheir old familiar carols play,And mild and sweet the words repeatOf peace on earth, good will to men.
And thought how, as the day had come,The belfries of all ChristendomHad rolled along the unbroken songOf peace on earth, good will to men.
Till, ringing, singing on its way,The world revolved from night to day,A voice, a chime, a chant sublimeOf peace on earth, good will to men.
Then from each black accursed mouthThe cannon thundered in the South,And with the sound the carols drownedOf peace on earth, good will to men.
It was as if an earthquake rentThe hearth-stones of a continent,And made forlorn the households bornOf peace on earth, good will to men.
And in despair I bowed my head;’There is no peace on earth,’ I said;For hate is strong, and mocks the songOf peace on earth, good will to men.’
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.’
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)
No one needs to be convinced today that something is off kilter in our lives, our families, our communities. There is pain and suffering, we are hurt by others and hurt others in turn. The Good News that we are straining to hear during this Advent season is found in a new born baby, but it is not weak or helpless; this Good News has the strength of God grafting us into himself, of sending not a sign or a prophet but coming as one of us.
There is no darkness past, present, or future that can hold a candle to this candle.