I HEARD THE BELLS ON CHRISTMAS DAY

BY STEVE DUNN

One of the songs that has always grabbed me at Christmas is called, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  It is based on a poem write by that classic American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was written in 1863 in the midst of the bloody, family-dividing American Civil War.

In March 1863 at age 18, Charles Longfellow had joined the Union Army. He was the oldest son of Longfellow and his wife  Fannie Elizabeth Appleton. Two years earlier Fannie had died when her dress caught on fire and Longfellow himself had burned severely while trying to save. Longfellow’s facial burns were severe enough that he was unable even to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would grow a beard to hide his burned face and at times feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief.  He was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry. Charlie was severely wounded in battle near New Hope, Virginia later that November.Before that he had only seen battle partially at Chancellorsville. That Christmas the widowed Longfellow, the father of five children with his oldest in the midst of a long recovery penned the words of the poem that became a classic Christmas carol. (These details based on “The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Justin Taylor.

Listen as Casting Crowns shared their version of the powerful carol.

Christmas 2015 is a time when many around the world from places like Paris, Afghanistan, Syria, northern Mexico, the Ukraine, and even here in the U.S. would echo Longfellow’s sentiment:

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!”

But in the midst of this we must keep our ears tuned to the Bells that will ring on Christmas Day.

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.”

More than 70 years in the hellish bowls of a Nazi concentration camp, a dying Betsy ten Boom reminded her sister, Corrie– “You must tell them that there is no pit so deep where God is not deeper.”

No matter had corrupt humanity may become, no matter how strong the insanity of violence may grow, no matter how much the shame may mount – we are reminded that God can and will overcome it all.  That;s His role in history. Our is to love and trust Him through it.

Ultimately Christmas is a reminder that gave Longfellow hope in the midst of his pain and suffering.  A hope ground in this confession of the Apostle Paul.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written: “For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.“- Romans 8.35-39

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