#1 "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" (music: John Baptiste Calkin, lyrics: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, based on Luke 2:14)
You might be wondering why I would choose this hymn as the top of the fourteen considering it mentions neither Jesus nor His birth. There are no shepherds, no angels, no Joseph, Mary, or wise men. You could argue that the only reason this is a Christmas hymn at all is because the narrator happened to hear the bells on Christmas day. It could just as easily be "I Heard the Bells on Easter Day," couldn't it?
And yet when I made my list, this was the easy #1 in my mind, challenged only briefly by "Silent Night." This one's my very favorite. The lyrics are beautiful and share a powerful sentiment. The tune is wonderful and has been in my head since I came up with the idea for these posts (which was, incidentally, while I was singing this very hymn). And while I don't like to focus on this as much, the backstory to the lyrics is powerful, too.
Longfellow's son enlisted enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War against his wishes. He was severely wounded only a few months later in November. At nearly the same time, Longfellow's wife perished in a fire. In his grief, he wrote the poem "Christmas Bells," which was set to music and became this hymn.
It's a hymn of sadness, despair, and grieving. It's a hymn about a crisis of faith. Longfellow writes that he has long heard the "unbroken song of peace on earth, goodwill to men," but now questions whether or not it is still true. He saw war, destruction, and agony all around him. Was God still there? How could He be if He allowed his son to be wounded fighting for what he thought was right? And how could He allow his wife to be taken in an accidental fire?
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 image of hate mocking the notion of peace on earth is a painful one. It's one thing to oppose peace, but another altogether to mock and demean it once it has been defeated. Longfellow must have felt that fate was being cruelly spiteful in taking both his wife and son from him. And surely, he must have felt that it was not fate, but God himself mocking him. His wife's death was an accident, yes, but one in which she was doing something entirely innocent. She was saving locks of her children's hair in an envelope and sealing them with wax, and somehow her dress caught fire, fatally burning her. To add insult to injury, Longfellow too was burnt, severely enough that he could not attend the funeral.
We all go through similar crises of faith in our lives, though perhaps not as dramatic. We wonder if God is really there, and if He knows our pain. We wonder why there is so much evil in the world and why He does not intervene. We may even wonder if, rather than loving us, He takes pleasure in our suffering, since we endure so much of it. We go through dark times, we hurt, we ache, and we doubt.
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."
Through the darkness, a beam of light comes through. God lives, He loves us, and He hears us despite our pains and suffering. His hand is active, even if we can't always see it. He is always there. The bells never stopped ringing; it was we who stopped hearing them. The angels' song has never ceased. We stop, we listen, and we once again tune our ears to the ringing of the bells. The world revolves from night to day, and we regain our trust in our Father, who sent His Son to give us reason to listen to the bells at all.
It's a Christmas message after all, even if the nativity isn't mentioned. The Savior lives that we might not die. In time, war, anger, and hatred will fade away, leaving only a voice, a chime, a chant sublime of peace on earth, good will to men.
Merry Christmas, friends.
Previously in this series
#2 Silent Night
#3 The First Noel
#4 Away in a Manger
#5 Hark! The Herald Angels Sing
#6 Oh Come, All Ye Faithful
#7 Far, Far Away on Judea's Plains
#8 Once in Royal David's City
#9 Angels We Have Heard on High
#10 It Came upon the Midnight Clear
#11 O Little Town of Bethlehem
#12 With Wondering Awe
#13 Joy to the World
#14 While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks