Hearing ‘Peace’ in Christmas Bells

  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, goodwill to men!”

                Perhaps the despair expressed in this stanza of a Christmas carol has ravaged your heart during the Christmas season. It certainly was felt by parents in Pakistan where the Taliban massacred 148, most of whom were school children; or in the village in Nigeria, where Boko Haran militants kidnapped another 185; or those who worried about their loved ones held by a terrorist inside a Sydney café.  

Christmas had not been a happy time for poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Since 1861 his life had been filled with despair which the Christmas season only seemed to worsen. In that year his country became embroiled in a war he hated, and his beloved wife was fatally burned in an accident at home. He wrote in his journal on Christmas Day, “How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays.”

Six months later the despair still gripped his heart. “I can make no record of these days,” Longfellow wrote. “Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” But the very idea of peace on earth seemed so foreign to his heart. The journal entry from December, 1862, was sullen. “’A merry Christmas,’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

The tragedies seemed to mount in the coming year. Longfellow’s oldest son Charles, who had joined the army against his father’s will, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and injuring his spine. He wrote nothing in his journal for Christmas of 1863.

We don’t know the details of the personal spiritual struggle of Longfellow endured during those years, but we can see a ray of renewed hope break through when, on December 25, 1864, he wrote the poem he titled, “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, goodwill to men!

Two of the original verses are not sung today, as they speak of the gloom of the Civil War that “made forlorn the houses born of peace on earth, goodwill to men!” But the verse with which I began this blog duly reflects the misery which had engulfed Longfellow’s heart as “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, goodwill to men!’”

But Longfellow had come to the realization that there is an answer to life’s despair. He had come to look beyond the wrongs of life and despairs of loss and could now focus on his God, the One who is very much alive and who sovereignly works out a plan far greater than we can understand.

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, goodwill to men!”

Does peace seem evasive in your life during Christmas, 2014? God, who may seem far away to you, is very much alive and desiring to work in your life for your good and His glory. The story of Christmas is Emmanuel; the Son of God came to be with us, to give His life for us on the cross and invite us into an eternal relationship of hope through Him.

Let’s refocus this Christmas. Let’s remove our eyes from the reasons for despair that are so prevalent in this fallen world. And let’s place our confidence in the Prince of Peace, the living Christ. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7). 

Author: GGF President Frosty Hansen