Tonight we are singing and studying the carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day from Alan Vermilye’s book The Carols of Christmas. Hopefully, you have read through the daily meditations on this carol.
In the first two verses of the carol, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow writes of the traditions of Christmas and the traditional meaning of Christmas – “The old familiar carols play . . . Of peace on earth, good will to men.” As Vermilye writes, these traditions serve to give us unity, provide stability, and offer us strong emotional connections with those with whom we share these traditions. (Day 9). These traditions are intended to evoke feelings of happiness and fond remembrances.
These traditions of carols and bells invoke the same hymn that the angels sang on the first Christmas – “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!” Luke 2:14. Christmas is about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. Gal 5:22. Think about the feelings that Christmas invokes.
These feelings that Christmas is intended to evoke are often at disharmony with reality. For Longfellow that reality was the loss of his wife, a nation at war, and a severely injured son. In that summer of 1863, 165,000 Americans had engaged in armed conflict with each other inflicting over 50,000 casualties. This three-day Battle of Gettysburg produced almost four times the total amount of casualties incurred by American troops in the entire American Revolution. The size of the armies and the destruction wrought exceeded all warfare that had gone before, and there was no end in sight. Therefore, we sing “there is no peace on earth, for hate is strong and mocks the song.”
As Vermilye points out, it does not take a war for us to feel a dissonance between the message of Christmas and our lives. (Day 10). Traditions can become burdensome as we try to achieve an ideal that cannot be met. In addition to our everyday cares are added the “requirement” that we decorate, buy presents, and make things into a Hallmark movie all the while missing those who are no longer with us. “I hate Christmas” is not an unusual cry. (Day 11). Think about how the promises of Christmas go unfilled each year.
Dissonance, however, resolves to consonance. How do we make sense of the angelic proclamation of peace and goodwill when that is not part of our observed reality? Wadsworth begins the resolve with the declaration that “‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep/The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” As we saw in our study of Revelation, God, through Christ, prevails. He is the first fruit of the victory of death. 1 Cor. 15: 20, 54. In hearing the bells on Christmas Day, Wadsworth comes to understand that “In the world, you will have tribulations, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33. As Vermilye writes “God, however, doesn’t always offer us the answers we seek. In this life, we might never really understand why some things have happened. But as we draw closer to him, we, too, can overcome those deep, dark days.” (Day 12). “Ultimately, evil knows that it has no power over God.” (Day 13).
Wadsworth ends his carol by repeating the words of the angels: “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Peace and good will not only come from the understanding and expectation that God is in charge and that all things work towards the good but also come from us. John writes: “If god so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” 1 John 4:11. If we love one another, and not the traditions for traditions sake, then that peace of God which passes all understanding (Phil 4:7) most assuredly will come upon us as did the angels at the manger.
Dinner is at 6. The menu is antipasto salad and BBQ sliders. Singing and Discussion around 6:45. Hope to see you here. (And if you have a bell, please bring it!)
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.
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.”
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!
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