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Month: December 2014

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 (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.

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The gifts of the star

Of all the symbols related to Christmas, the most meaningful for me is undoubtedly the star. 

The star radiates majesty and mystery. Perched high atop a roof or tree, silently overlooking the frenzy of the season, it doesn’t judge, coerce, or demand attention. It is just there, waiting patiently for the world to look up and receive its message of hope. 

sheperd_star_born_jesusMentioned in only one passage of scripture (Matthew 2:1-12), the star seems to appear with purpose and move with intelligence, almost like a living character in the story. When the promised Messiah is born, the star appears to the Magi, but it does not at first lead them to him; instead it apparently disappears or is hidden for awhile, because they have to go to Jerusalem and ask where to find “the king of the Jews” (v. 2). After they learn the prophets foretold he would be born in Bethlehem, the star reappears, to their great joy (v. 10). Matthew says it “went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was” (v. 9). 

It went ahead of them, and then stopped at a specific spot? What kind of star does that? It almost seems to have a mind of its own. 

To me, its rare behavior indicates that the star was a supernatural phenomenon, ordered by God to mark a supernatural event—an event like no other in history: the coming of the Savior. 

The first-century Jews were in desperate need of a savior. They were oppressed from without by a Roman empire that neither understood nor cared about what was important to them. They were oppressed from within by a system of religious laws which were impossible to keep. It was a time of uncertainty, violence, and hopelessness. God had been silent for four centuries since the last Old Testament prophet. The promise of the Messiah was ancient history, distant and forgotten. 

They must have wondered if God had abandoned them—or if he even cared. 

Then Jesus was born, and God sent the star to point the way to him. 

The world today is also in desperate need of a savior. In our human arrogance, we think we are doing okay—but look at the headlines. We are not okay. We are lost in darkness and brokenness. 

But how does that relate to the star? Isn’t the star just an irrelevant symbol of an ancient story? What difference could it possibly make in our dark world today? 

I think the star still matters, because it shows God’s love and care. He used it to provide three gifts that are always desperately needed: anticipation, guidance, and the fulfillment of his promise. 

First, the star created anticipation. Apparently the Magi had studied prophecies about the Messiah and had connected the dots. They recognized the appearance of the star as such an epic event that they eagerly packed their things, left their home, and traveled for about two years (according to the report in Matthew 2:16) to follow it to the place where he was. Imagine their excitement as they got closer and closer to finding him. 

Anticipation creates excitement that God has something good in store. Without anticipation, we have nothing to look forward to. 

Second, the star provided guidance. It led the Magi from far-off lands to the promised Messiah, just as the pillar of fire led the Hebrews (Exodus 13:21) from the Red Sea to the Promised Land. Both the star and the fire led their followers to a specific destination, chosen by God. And metaphorically, both showed the way of deliverance, out of darkness and into the light. 

Guidance provides a sense that God is leading. Without guidance, we wander aimlessly in the dark.

Third, and best of  all, the star marked the fulfillment of God’s promise. From the prophecies, the Magi knew about the promised Messiah, and they recognized the star as the supernatural sign of his birth. The star proved that God, who had seemed to be absent or oblivious for so long, not only makes promises; he also keeps them.

Anticipation, guidance, and the fullfillment of God’s promise—we need those three gifts now more than ever. For the Magi, the star was the light which guided them to Jesus. For us, it is a reminder that God will accomplish his plan for deliverance, even when we cannot see it.