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I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day

by BOB SHILLINGSTAD/Special to The Press
| December 26, 2020 1:00 AM

Last week the column I offered was about remembering God’s faithfulness this Christmas and suggesting each of us raise “an Ebenezer” to remind us that we serve a God who is faithful. Oh, how we need this long, long story of God’s faithfulness and also realizing our moment in time is just a “speck” in light of the bigger picture of God’s story of redemption. God’s love for us is so great, that He came into the world to save us — after man chose to leave Him. While we were yet still in rebellion against Him, He laid down his life for us. (John 10:10-1).

So much of our trouble comes upon us for seemingly of no reason and not of our own making. I am reminded of the life of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow a great American poet, novelist and scholar. Every school child not so long ago read his poetry and knew about his life. He wrote works like Evangeline, Poems on Slavery, The Song of Hiawatha, poems like The Village Blacksmith, Paul Revere’s Ride and The Wreck of the Hesperus.

Longfellow wrote another poem which became a lesser-known song and often not the first to be requested around the Christmas tree or at the church program. The lyrics were born out of painful circumstances, but as with other classic hymns, the story behind the song gives it gravity and drives home the message of hope and the power of God’s marvelous plan.

Longfellow was born on Feb. 27, 1807, and upon his death was one of the few American poets to be buried in the Poets’ Corner at Westminster Abbey. The time between these events, as with most poets, was filled with plenty of writing, and quite a bit of tragedy. His first wife, Mary Potter, died suddenly in childbirth while Longfellow was overseas. After a long and difficult courtship, he married Frances Appleton in 1843 and the couple had six children. The marriage was an exceptionally happy one for both partners and brought Longfellow the domestic stability he had missed.

In 1861, while sealing envelopes with hot wax, a flame caught Frances’ clothes on fire. Henry had rushed to her aid and tried to smother the flames. But by the time the fire was out, Frances had been burned beyond recovery. Longfellow was also badly burned and couldn’t be at her funeral. He fell into a deep depression after this event and threw himself into his work.

Longfellow was a staunch abolitionist, something that was proudly reflected in some of his writing. So, when the Civil War came, his oldest son, Charley, was eager to do his part. As a Second Lieutenant, Charley fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. On Nov. 27, 1863, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. Longfellow’s son survived his injury and was brought home to recover.

Longfellow found himself staring down another Christmas season as a widower, with five children dependent on him and now one child on the brink of death. Outside, he heard the Christmas bells ringing, but I imagine he could also hear the cannons and gunfire of war in his mind. The world was tearing itself apart. There didn’t seem to be much space for peace on earth or goodwill toward men. In the midst of it all, Longfellow did what he did best. He wrote these lyrics.

“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.”

When listening to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” it helps us to understand the gravity of sin – the way it permeates our world. But the conclusion of the song reminds us of Christ’s glorious resurrection, and eventual return, when “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail,” and peace will truly rule the earth. In the midst of this year and this Christmas, these are promises we can hold to.

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Bob Shillingstad’s columns appear Saturdays in The Press. Email Bob: bjshill@mac.com