“Evil visited this community today.”
- CT Gov. Malloy
I don’t watch the evening news. Story after story of injustice, tragedy, and hurting people interrupted only by the weatherman is a depressing way to end the day. Maybe it’s too much reality. Life is hard. We’ve all experienced injustice, when the fallenness of this world wounds us. We all have scars to prove it. It doesn’t take us long to learn that the world is not a kind place. But even the most jaded among us was probably speechless at the shootings at a Connecticut elementary school Friday morning.
The mental image of Christmas gifts that will never be opened is crushingly sad. These were 6 year olds! Most probably didn’t tie their own shoes before they got dropped off at school. I can’t imagine the shock and pain the parents of those kids feel right now – nor do I want to. The news is heartbreaking enough at arms’ length.
But even at arms’ length, I have to admit: the silly happiness of most Christmas music on the radio today felt very out of place. But one song seemed to deal pretty honestly with the doubts that come with the chaos of this fallen world. Its words were written by a guy who was intimately familiar with a world that seemed to be completely out of control: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Christmas 1863 was not particularly merry for Longfellow.
The country was in the midst of the Civil War. Longfellow – like probably many, many Americans that winter – did not feel joyful. At all.
18 months earlier, Longfellow’s wife Frances had sealed an envelope with hot sealing wax, as she’d probably done hundreds of times before. But this time her dress caught fire. She died of her burns the next morning. When the blaze had ignited, he had thrown himself onto her to try and snuff out the flames, but had burned himself so badly in the process that he was unable to attend her funeral. As his skin slowly healed, he was left alone to deal with his own grief and care for their children in the midst of a nation at war with itself. The next spring, his oldest son, Charles, ran off to join the army. Henry found out later when he received a letter in March. In November, Charles was shot and severely wounded.
Longfellow’s world must have felt like it had spun off its axis. Random chaos, tragedy, pain – these were the things that seemed to define his life in Christmas 1863. Christmas carols with words like “merry and bright,” probably felt absurdly trivial for him, too.
This was the setting for Longfellow when he wrote one of the most well-known Christmas poems titled simply, “Christmas Bells.” It’s since been redone as a song, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which you may know. In it Longfellow lays out the causes of his heartache and the intense fear of a father who is helpless to protect his child in the face of thundering enemy guns. He admits that his experience makes him doubt that God is in control, that good hasn’t been defeated by evil. But then – almost in answer – he hears “the Christmas Bells” ringing:
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.”
Longfellow realized that Christmas itself is the reason for our hope. The tragedy of our human experience points us to the promise of the baby born in barn. The injustice and suffering of Christ’s day was equal to ours. The parents He was born to probably struggled to find similar answers: had God forgotten His people? Did He see how they were suffering?
And then came the baby. Mary sang the Magnificat. Simeon also understood. The baby was the very embodiment of hope. God had come Himself to save, to deliver. Suffering, pain, death – this Child would eventually be the end of it all. Though He would suffer unjustly and die a tragic, painful, humiliating death on a rough wooden cross, death would not hold Him. He would turn death against itself.
This is the Christian hope: that injustice – an inescapable part of fallen human experience – will one day end. Justice will prevail. Pain, sickness, even death – all of it will not last. Evil is not eternal. In Christ we have an indestructible hope – and that is the Christmas message: God has come in flesh to begin the end of all that. ”Peace on earth” will one day be the inescapable human experience.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
- Rev 21:3-4
Deep in every heart, this is what each of us longs for, isn’t it?
Come quickly, Lord Jesus.