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The paradox of the bells

01f3de4d7e0148b5b4f93d30cdc65338At Christmas I often reflect on the incongruity of peace amid conflict, hope amid despair, light amid darkness. I am reminded of the simple paradox that light can push back darkness, but darkness cannot overcome light.

And nothing expresses this paradox better than Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1864 poem, “Christmas Bells,”  later set to music as the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

We seldom hear the peal of church bells anymore, but in Longfellow’s time it was prominent in every town—especially at Christmas.

On Christmas Day 1864, our nation was enveloped in the darkness and despair of the Civil War. Yet Longfellow was struck by the joy and jubilation of the Christmas bells.

 I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
     And wild and sweet
     The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
     Had rolled along
     The unbroken song
Of 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 sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!*

A couple of years earlier, Longfellow’s wife had died due to injuries from a fire; and more recently, against his wishes, his son Charles had joined the Union Army and had been critically wounded in battle.

Overwhelmed by grief, Longfellow struggled to reconcile the joy of the bells with the hopelessness of death and the destructiveness of war.

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
     And with the sound
     The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men! 

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
     And made forlorn
     The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!*

In 2012, I experienced similar incongruity when America was rocked to its core by a string of December shootings.

On December 14, a shooter killed his mother and then, at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, killed 20 children and 7 adults, including himself.

On December 21, another shooter in Frankstown Township, Pennsylvania, fatally shot three people and then was killed in a shootout.

But before either of those events, on December 11 a gunman opened fire in Clackamas Town Center—a mall just a couple of miles from my home in Portland, Oregon— killing two people and then himself.

I remember standing on my front porch, surrounded by Christmas lights, watching the police and press helicopters circling overhead in the dusk.

The innocence of Christmas was lost for me that night.

Christmas is supposed to be a time of anticipating Christ—the one who came to save humanity once and for all. It is supposed to be a time when schools and malls are filled with laughter and singing and visits from Santa.

Not a time of screaming and running for cover.

Not a time of of loved ones grieving over bloodied bodies.

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!” 

The next day I drove over to the scene of the shooting, just to be there. As I drove, the radio was playing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (Casting Crowns version). It wasn’t the first time I had heard it, but this time it struck me at the deepest level.

As local folks tried to comprehend and grieve the ravages of the shootings, I thought of Longfellow struggling to understand and grieve the ravages of war, including his own son’s injury.

Then I thought of the very first Christmas—a time that was equally dark. In first-century Palestine, there was suffering, oppression, and terrorism. There was prejudice, hatred, and violence.

Just as in 1864.

Just as in 2012.

Just as in 2014.

Since Adam left Eden, it has never been any different.

Yet in the darkness, the bells proclaim that Christ was born to deliver the world from sin, and to set all things right.

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!”

Longfellow never lost faith because of the paradox of a beautiful world torn by war and violence. Instead, he listened to the bells. And in their joyous clamor, he found hope.

For those glorious bells proclaimed that God is here; he sees pain and injustice; and one day he will reconcile all things to himself.

“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).

In ancient Eden, in first-century Palestine, and in America today, the darkness and self-destruction of this world was, is, and always will be overcome by Jesus, the Light.

Casting Crowns Perform ‘I Heard The Bells.’ from casting-crowns on GodTube.

 

* From the database of Longfellow poems at www.hwlongfellow.org/poems_front.ph (a website of the Maine Historical Society). It should be noted that when the poem was set to music as a carol, Longfellow’s third stanza (“Till, ringing, singing on its way…”) was moved to the end and his fourth and fifth stanzas were omitted.

Published inAdventDark NightGriefMeaning

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