I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: A Prayer and Hope

advent

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

It is not Christmas yet. Yes we are still in Advent and no, we have not even reached the traditional Twelve Days of Christmas. Despite the crass marketing of American retailers they begin on Christmas day not 12 days before Christmas.  Sad but true.

I have mentioned in previous posts here I am listening to nothing on the radio except Christmas music. The liturgical Nazi in me let this joy go away for a number of years wanting to be liturgically correct. I admit that the season of Advent is important and I do observe it in hope and expectation. At the same time there is something special about Christmas and Christmas music. I find that even in its less religious expressions that Christmas music offers something different, more hopeful and peaceful than crashing thunder of our media overload that we see on television, view on the internet and listen to on the radio. Somehow the din of the political war, the real life tragedies that we have little control and even sports can crowd out anything calm, peaceful or good in our hearts.

One of the songs that really speaks to me is I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.  I have heard it a number of times in the past few days and each time it really touches me.

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The song has been recorded in a number of versions by different artists over the years. However, the words of the song go back to the American Civil War. It began as a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863 following the serious wounding of his son in battle as a Union Soldier and the death of his wife in a fire.

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http://www.myvideo.de/watch/5531008/Frank_Sinatra_I_Heard_The_Bells_On_Christmas_Day

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 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhsUhiiicLo

I like the version sung by Frank Sinatra, which the music was composed by Johnny Marks, composer of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Another earlier version composed by John Baptiste Calkin has been recorded by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash among others.

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http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IcP8xvgwucs

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The words are haunting. Probably because they demonstrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of the Incarnation, which is the heart of Christmas and the Christian faith. the tension, played out so well in the song is the existence of a message of peace and reconciliation in a world where war and hatred of many kinds tear human beings apart and the tragic inability of Christendom to even come close to the message of Christmas.

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.

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along th’ unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

The reality of this is seen in the third verse. It is a verse that echoes throughout history and seems to be true even today.

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.”

The interesting part about the songs as opposed to the poem is that they omit three of Longfellow’s verses, that admittedly in a reunited country would not help record sales. Those verses speak to the heart of the Civil War.

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!

But Longfellow hears in the bells something more powerful. It is the message of Christmas and the incarnation. The message that justice and peace will finally embrace.

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.”

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.

As wars rage in the Middle East, tensions rise in Asia, Africa and even Eastern Europe while the Unholy Trinity of Politicians, Pundits and Preacher rage in conflict over another potential Fiscal Cliff, the Affordable Healthcare Act and other budgetary and social issues it is important not to give in to despair.

As Longfellow so well put in the middle of a terrible Civil War, where his son had been wounded and following the death of his wife “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail With peace on earth, good will to men.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

5 Comments

Filed under christian life, faith, music

5 responses to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day: A Prayer and Hope

  1. What a beautiful carol – & such powerful words! Thank you for this reminder about the kind of peace that surpasses all our understanding.

  2. You remind me of the song “Christmas Bells”, the tale of Snoopy in battle with his great foe, the Red Baron:
    “And the Baron had Snoopy/Dead in his sights.
    “But he didn’t shoot/Well, we’ll never know.
    “Or was it the bells/From the village below?”
    May the Christmas Bells truly ring across the land, and may they ask peace for all the world, and goodwill towards man – and woman – wherever they may be.
    You’re just bound and determined to put me in the spirit, aren’t you? 😉

  3. padresteve

    Reblogged this on Padresteve's World…Musings of a Passionate Moderate and commented:

    Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
    As we approach Christmas I find that sometimes older Christmas Carols can evoke both cognitive and emotional responses to the season in the context of current events. This song, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is such a song. Please take the time to look at the context in which Longfellow wrote the poem from which the song comes. It was written at a time of the loss of his wife and the wounding of his son during the Civil War, or as it was originally called and rightly should still be called the “War of the Slaveholder’s Rebellion.”
    Anyway, have a blessed last Sunday of Advent and please be careful out at the malls and other shopping areas, they can be quite harrowing and stressful as I found out once again today. Peace, Padre Steve+

    • I hope they can hear the bells, throughout north and central Africa, not to mention the Middle East. Regardless of religious faith, peace should be an everyday goal, whether the day be holy, just somebody’s birthday (like the wild party of basement bailing I have planned for tomorrow’s festivities!), or a plain old ordinary day. Let us hope 2014 will bring that peace to so much of this needy globe.
      And may the rest of your weekend be happy, safe, and DRY! 😀

      • padresteve

        That is a fact my friend. I hope that you are doing well and that this Christmas is good for you and your family. Blessings my friend, Steve+

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