Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Bells

Last August, I was privileged to play piano alongside a guest worship leader at church. The next day, I went to his web store and bought his album. It never came in the mail. After a few months of waiting, I got a little frustrated about it and finally asked for a refund.

At the beginning of December, the worship leader sent me a message apologizing for the delay in sending the CD, and then he explained that between the time of my order and his apology, he had suffered a loss which had put his web store waaaaaaaay on the back burner. I felt terrible! I’ve suffered loss. I know what it’s like for normal things to go by the wayside, and I understand, in terms of grief, how short a timespan three months is. I understand how short two years is.

The worship leader was scheduled to lead again the following Sunday at church, and when I arrived for rehearsal, all three of his CDs were lined up in a row on the piano’s music stand. An undeserved gift. Grace to me.

One of the songs he had chosen for our worship set was “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”. It begins:

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!

During the service, the worship leader told us the story behind the song, which I came home and researched a little more. It was originally a poem entitled "Christmas Bells", penned in 1864 by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow lost his wife to a freak accidental fire in July 1861. She had decided to trim their daughter’s hair because it was so hot out. She saved the trimmings in an envelope, and as she sealed the envelope with hot wax, some of the drippings landed on her dress. A breeze set her dress on fire. She ran into her husband’s study for help, and he tried to extinguish the fire with a rug. When that didn’t work, he tried to smother it out with his own body. His wife died the next morning. Longfellow suffered burns so severe he was unable to attend her funeral.

The first Christmas after her death, he wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

The next Christmas, his 1862 journal entry was, “’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

On Christmas Day in 1863, Longfellow wrote nothing at all.

But on December 25, 1864, he wrote his poem “Christmas Bells”. The stanza that resonates with me says:

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!”

Yep. True. Hate is strong, and it does mock the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men. Longfellow watched his wife die. I lost my father to suicide. Our worship leader’s personal loss was still very fresh as he stood in front of our congregation and explained the story behind the song.

But the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men was not written by men. It was written by God Himself. Hate is strong, but God’s love is stronger. Wherever evil attempts to flourish, God pours out grace and mercy in greater measure. Satan loses every battle he fights because evil is only allowed to exist to show us God’s mercy (Romans 11:32) and His glory.

Longfellow figured that out. Our worship leader sang it boldly and confidently while in deep pain. This Christmas, at our house, we are singing it, too.

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!”

Our year was filled with difficult circumstances and sorrow. Much sorrow. But God’s Christmas bells peal out love and mercy and grace and joy and peace. Indeed, God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.

“The Lord your God is with you, He is mighty to save; He will take great delight in you, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing… of peace on earth, goodwill to men” (Zephaniah 3:17, Luke 2:14b).

Peace on earth, goodwill to you. Merry Christmas.