When we say, “It is Christmas,” we mean that God has spoken into the world his last, his deepest, his most beautiful word in the incarnate Word. And this word means: I love you, you, the world and human beings.— Karl Rahner
I ran across this painting by Eric Dowdle as I was nursing a bit of holiday doldrums. It’s easy to fall into doldrums while anticipating Christmas. We expect an ”all is calm, all is bright” kind of Christmas, but sometimes that’s not reality at all. Instead, we can’t hear the singing of choirs, the sweet sounds of the organ or the ringing of Christmas bells.
When I look at this art, I see everything we long for as Christmas nears: a bright and beautiful tree with a sparking star on top, Santas everywhere and the people encircling the tree as if to say, ”Right here among us, there is peace on earth among people of good will.” If the painting miraculously had sound, I imagine I would hear the ringing of church bells heralding the magnificent coming of peace on earth.
Yet, we have reality in our sight instead of this joyful painting. Peace among us in these days, even peace within us, seems to be in short supply as division, war, poverty, and racial injustice continues to hold sway on our world. Not insignificant is that our personal relationships seem to be less than peaceful. The place within us where peace ought to be is often in chaos, filled with anxiety or just plain empty. Peace in our hearts and spirits—that sacred sense of serenity and inner calm—simply eludes us.
When my spirit is not at peace, I can barely see peace anywhere, even at Christmas. Such was the story of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow who wrote the words of the beloved carol, ”I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” Some of the stanzas of Longfellow’s beautiful poem are familiar to us, but other stanzas we have seldom, if ever, heard. Here is the poem in its entirety.
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! And 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! 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! Then from each black, accursed mouth The cannon thundered in the South, And with the sound The carols drowned Of peace on earth, good-will to men! It was as if an earthquake rent The hearth-stones of a continent, And made forlorn The households born 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 all!
I cannot help but look around at what I see and hear on the streets of this city and all over the world and see despair, hatred, division and violence taking over the peace I so need. So as the carol says, ”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!”
As you seek peace this Christmas season, know that God is the giver of a deep peace that abides in our hearts. I invite you to take a few moments out of your day to enjoy these videos. The first is a choral and orchestra performance of the carol. The second is a lovely group of young people singing the hymn with the addition of handbells. The third is a beautiful performance by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir with the narrated story of Longfellow’s writing of the carol.
May the Christmas blessing of peace fill your heart, and may you hear, above all other sounds, the wild and sweet ringing of the bells of Christmas.