I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” during a particularly low point in his life. His son Charles, without consent, had joined the Union army during the American Civil War and was killed in combat. Around the same time his wife also died in an accidental fire. On Christmas day, 1864, he sat down and penned these words.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
and mild 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!

The carol begins nicely: the bells on Christmas morning remind him of the angels in the Gospels. Peace on earth, good-will to men! Then it takes a dark turn.

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!”

While we can look back and see 1864 as a good year for the Union, for those living during the time victory was not certain. Battles at the Wilderness and the Crater and the siege of Petersburg were bloody, brutal affairs. Coupled with his double-loss, it was no wonder Longfellow despaired. “There is no peace on earth” is a mild sentiment considering the circumstances.

But the carol doesn’t end there:

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.”

This is not mere sentimentality, or a liberal belief in Progress. For Longfellow, the Gospel rings louder than the evil of men. What sin has done to man, Jesus undoes. The canon may boom, but the church bell peals louder.

God is in the Manger

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
(Hebrews 1:1-3 ESV)

There will likely be a Christmas party or get-together of some kind at your place of work.  Every church, Sunday School class and public school will have something to attend at this very special time of year.  There is family to visit and food to prepare.  I keep hearing “It’s the most stressful time of the year.”  Even if you’re keeping the Christ in Christmas there is so much to be distracted by.  There is peace and joy as the angels visit the shepherds.  The wise men brings precious gifts.  Our hearts go out to Joseph and especially Mary as they make their pilgrimage in faith to Bethlehem.  It is a tender, precious story of God’s love for mankind.  But don’t forget to look in the manger.

It’s not just a story of an unwed mother being particularly blessed.  The birth of Jesus is the beginning of heaven touching earth.  Hebrews 1 is at the top of the page; take a look at Philippians 2 and Colossians 1.  That’s not just a baby in the manger, that’s God.  Jesus said that he and the Father are one. Isaiah prophesied his name would be called “Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  Jesus is God, God is Jesus.  He left heaven to come here and do this.  When we could not come to God, he came looking for us.

If there is anything in your manger other than God himself, it’s time to re-evaluate.  He is not just bringing peace, he is our peace.  Emmanuel means God with us.  He is near; he is here.  God is in the manger.  This is good news for all people.

A Hymn for Christmas Day

Why doth the sun re-orient take
A wider range, his limits break?
Lo! Christ is born, and o’er earth’s night
Shineth from more to more the light!

Too swiftly did the radiant day
Her brief course run and pass away:
She scarce her kindly torch had fired
Ere slowly fading it expired.

Now let the sky more brightly beam,
The earth take up the joyous theme:
The orb a broadening pathway gains
And with its erstwhile splendour reigns.

Sweet babe, of chastity the flower,
A virgin’s blest mysterious dower!
Rise in Thy twofold nature’s might:
Rise, God and man to reunite!

Though by the Father’s will above
Thou wert begot, the Son of Love,
Yet in His bosom Thou didst dwell,
Of Wisdom the eternal Well;
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Of the Father’s Love Begotten

Most hymnbooks that I’ve seen only include stanzas 1, 6 and 9 of this classic carol, but there are many other excellent verses that should be highlighted during Advent and Christmas. Here are my favorite four to sing during this time of year.

Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

He is found in human fashion, death and sorrow here to know,
That the race of Adam’s children doomed by law to endless woe,
May not henceforth die and perish
In the dreadful gulf below, evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bare the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom seers in old time chanted of with one accord;
Whom the voices of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!

The Incarnation Continues

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.”  And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:10-14)

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:20-23)

Historically speaking, the birth of Jesus was a real, one-time event.  A young woman in rural Judea did give birth to a boy who would later change the world.  He was born into a world of Caesars, revolutionaries, legalists, shepherds, and astrologers.  Theologically, we call this event the Incarnation (of course).  Again, this was a one-time even; God came to us as the man Jesus once and after he had died and was resurrected, he ascended into the heavens.

We might be tempted to end the Incarnation story, Christmas itself, at that point.  Jesus is born, his work is set out before him and that’s that.  But, in a very real way, the Incarnation is more than a historical event.  It is an ongoing event, a present reality, that has continued for the past 2,000 years.  The Incarnation continues today, both in and through the church Jesus himself established.

This Jesus, as the above passages say, is both God with us and our savior.  This reality has not ended.  While his physical body is no longer present for us to see, Jesus Christ continues to “incarnate” himself to the world, saving mankind.  At different times, and in many different ways (to paraphrase the writer of Hebrews), God speaks to us in his son.

The connection between these realities is Pentecost.  Christmas brings us face to face with a creator God who would humble himself to our level, Easter shows us the beginnings of the culmination of God’s plan, and Pentecost tells us the work is not yet done.

The incarnation continues today, all these years later, because there are those who have not heard the news.  They have not been given the annoucement, not been invited to the royal feast, have not yet been told of their new Lord.  The incarnation continues because the enemy is not yet under Jesus’ foot.

A Christmas Eve Prayer

O God, because you once caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light, grant that we who have known the mystery of that Light here on earth may come to the full measure of its joys in heaven; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Amen.