Monday, December 22, 2008

Of Hymns and Carols

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 roll'd along
th' unbroken song
Of Peace on earth,
good will to men.

And in despair,
I bow'd 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 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 hearthstones of a continent,

And made forlorn,
the households born

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."

Henry W. Longfellow wrote the lyrics of 'I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day' and it was first published in 1864. John B. Calkin composed its music in 1872, though it is also sung to an alternate tune that was originally composed by Joseph Mainzer in 1845.This hymn is full of despair, as it was written during the stressful times of American civil war. One can sense it clearly in the next to last stanza.
Stanzas 4 and 5 mention the battle times and are hence, often omitted from hymnals.

I heard this carol/hymn for the first time a few years ago. I loved the melody immediately, but the thing that struck me most was the bold insertion of despair---in a Christmas carol?

I had never thought about it before, but there ain't much despair in most carols we sing at Christmas time. And why should there be? For goodness' sake, Christmas is a time of immense joy and hope. God came to us. The baby that changed everything was born. Let us rejoice in the tidings of the angels.

And yet, if we are truthful, sometimes, amidst the joy and the merrymaking, is the niggling feeling that we are ignoring the harshness of reality. The wars. The famines. The epidemics. The destruction wrought by nature in hurricanes and tsunamis. The suffering of humanity set against the quiet backdrop of the Savior's birth. What are we to do with that? The inner discord. The holy disconnect. Tough stuff.

So, I admire this man, this Mr. Longfellow that had the chutzpah to write the hymn and to include the reality of his time---the horrors of the Civil War. We think things are bad in our nation now? The messy economy, the politics, the cr@p of our modern life? All of this pales in comparison to the terrible conditions of the Civil War.

Don't believe me? Look it up. The conditions were much worse than anything we have personally lived through since. Hurricane Katrina was baaaad. Our economy is tanking. Even the horror of 9/11, as very very very bad as it was and is, does not compare.

I find it interesting that many hymnals omit the 'war' stanzas. Hmmmm...I sort of get that, but I think the hymn is strongest when it accurately reflects the writer's despair. Because, what follows? Oh, the thrill of the truth of the final stanza!!!!

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."

When I am worshiping, I find that the lyrics that quote scripture (or closely approximate it) are the ones that cause me to be transported into the throne room. I believe it is because Truth resonates within our Spirit-core. We recognize it immediately within. And it thrills us.

God is not dead, nor does He sleep. (truth)

The wrong shall fail. (truth)

The right prevail. (truth)

With Peace on Earth, Good Will to Men. (promised)

The essence of being a Christ-follower is that we believe that there is a battle going on now, this very minute, unseen, in the Heavenlies. We believe that Christ will return. His righteousness will prevail over the darkness and we will experience that which we never could on our fallen earth...

Peace on Earth.

Good Will to Men.

1 comment:

Eileen said...


We ARE on the same wavelength! So well said! I agree that in relation to the last stanza, the Civil War passages are very poignant.

Excellent post! How could you go wrong posting about this incredible Christmas carol?! At least that's what I thought!