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church-bells

In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, Charles Appleton Longfellow, the oldest son of the famous poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing.

In a letter dated March 14, 1863, after Charles had left, he wrote to his father saying, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer… I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

He soon got an appointment as a lieutenant but, in November, was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia during the Mine Run Campaign. This event, coupled with the recent loss of his wife Frances, who died as a result of an accidental fire, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was inspired to write the poem, “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!

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!

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 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.”

On its own, this poem packs incredible emotion. It captures everything from the joy and jubilation of the celebration of Christmas Day to the hopelessness and despair in the face of a violent and broken world.

When I read this poem paired with the beginning of the gospel of John, I cannot help but feel that this is what Longfellow was thinking and feeling as he wrote these words.

Over the past few weeks, as we have been preparing and anticipating this night, and the arrival of our savior, we have done so mindful of the pain and anguish that is present in our world today.

Countless communities in our nation continue to be rocked by the ever-present sin of racism… we stand helplessly by as foreign nations devolve into war and chaos… we have watched as the city of Aleppo has been the site of untold horrors… we have lifted up our hands, not in praise, but in anguish, demanding that God, in the words of the prophet, “tear open the heavens and come down!” In many ways, it seems as if the bells of Christmas have been silenced.

We are a people who have been walking in darkness.

Yet… the prophet reminds us, that we have seen a great light. And now, tonight, those bells ring again: they peal more loud and deep, and they cry out, God is not dead! God does not sleep.

This is what that night accomplished so long ago. The people of Israel had been wandering, oppressed for so long it felt that God had abandoned them, forgotten the promise and the covenant forged in the wilderness. For many of them, it must have felt that God had fallen asleep on the job.

But we know how the story continued, and with Christ’s lowly birth in a stable, light was restored to our world, and the bells continued to ring their song of hope.

Brothers and sisters, in our world there is much darkness. For Longfellow, it was the black, accursed mouth of the cannon thunder from the South, a sound that, for him, drowned out the song of peace and good- will.

There is much darkness in our world. Families fleeing war and persecution sleep in refugee camps. War looms ever-present in the minds of our politicians. African-American mothers and fathers worry over the lives of their children. Gay, lesbian, and transgendered people fear for their very safety. God’s entire creation cries out in agony.

But John casts a radically different vision: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has NOT overcome it.” This is the good, joyous, overwhelming news of tonight. “The Wrong shall fail,/ The Right prevail.”

The light may be faint at first, but it spreads as rapid as wildfire. It cannot be contained. The joy is too contagious.

The bells continue to ring. They cease not. And we listen for their carol: “With peace on earth, good-will to men.” Amen.

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