Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Eve

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.
Peace on earth, good will to men.

I 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.
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.'
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'.
Peace on earth, good will to men.

For so long now my default “go to” carol over advent has been “O come o come Emmanuel”. I’ve appreciated its element of lament, the great theology in it, the cry of the hurting human heart “O come!”, and the reply of heaven, “Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come”.

However, just recently I’ve been turning to this HW Longfellow poem that has been set to a variety of tunes, but I first encountered performed by John Gorka.

Longfellow wrote this on Christmas Day 1864, a few years after the tragic death of his much beloved wife, Frances, and a few months after the terrible maiming of his son, Charles, who fought in the American civil war.

On first reading it can seem quite simplistic, with its pithy response that the wrong shall fail and the right prevail. That sounds a lot like the kind of things I tell my five year old son, to reassure him, to shelter him from the harsher realities of life as it’s experienced.

And yet, as simple as it sounds, it’s the truth. And for Longfellow, writing in the midst of pain and loss, it speaks of the hope that we’re looking forward to receiving afresh at Christmas, even though sometimes we receive that hope as if from a distance. It’s a declaration of faith. It’s part of the meaning and message that we’re celebrating tomorrow.

Because of this baby, justice will be done; because of this baby, peace becomes a possibility; because even though this baby gently sleeps, God never sleeps.

This Christmas eve, we’re waiting. Waiting for news, waiting for the celebration, waiting for it all to be over, waiting to finish work finally, waiting to see friends, waiting to see if we can make it through, waiting for a clear sound from a pealing bell that will preach the message again. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.

However this waiting day finds you, I pray that when you hear the bells, you’ll hear the angel afresh, Peace on earth, good will to all people.

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