This Sunday morning, we’ll sing a song we’ve heard many times before.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is one of those songs we sing year after year, and yet I’d never really thought about the lyrics or learned about its history. Turns out – like many of the hymns we sing – the lyrics and its history are laden with extraordinary meaning and hope.
Famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lived in Massachusetts in the 1800s and had six children with his wife, Fannie. In 1860, Fannie’s dress caught fire, and while Henry was badly burned trying to put out the fire with his own body, she tragically died the following morning, leaving behind Henry to care for their six children.
Two years later, at the age of 18, his eldest son Charley left home, to join President Lincoln’s Union army to fight in the Civil War. On December 1, 1863, Henry received a telegram that his son had been shot through the left shoulder and was severely wounded.
That same year, on Christmas Day, Henry “wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observed around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.”*
This year, whether you find yourself in the midst of sadness and despair, or whether you find yourself in the midst of a season of great joy and abundance, may we rest and rejoice in the truth found in Romans 8:
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
The baby in the manger grew up, walked the earth, gave up His life for you and me, and lives today to intercede for us. Even as we dwell on an earth still broken by sin and plagued by despair, like Longfellow, we have a confident hope in the One who overcame sin and despair…the One to whom every knee will one day bow, and every tongue will confess that He, Jesus Christ, is Lord. It's this truth that allows us to pray, "Return to your rest, my soul, for the LORD has been good to you," with expectant hearts, knowing that He has, indeed, been good.
The merriest of Christmases to you and your family!
*Taken from column by Justin Taylor, writing for The Gospel Coalition.