By the Rev. George Bowers
I know I'm showing my age a bit, but I still remember the old Christmas bell decorations that hung across Main Street in Woodstock. I don't know if they were suspended on utility wires or on specially made structures just for this purpose, but I still recall the huge lighted red bells with accompanying greenery that stretched from one side of the street to the other. And although I like them now, I remember the disappointment I felt when the town replaced those grand old bells with the wreaths that still hang on the light poles by the sides. (I've never been real good with change.)
I also remember some old red plastic bells that my dad and brothers hung along the front of our home. This was long before all the convenient plastic gutter clips and siding gadgets became available. Hanging decorations in those days took some good old fashioned ingenuity, but the results were spectacular, even if the large colored bulbs did drink large amounts of electricity. And though they didn't make a sound, there was something about that string of bright red bells that just said, "It's Christmas!"
Then there's the song, "Silver Bells." I remember finding this Christmas favorite in one of my sister's piano books and realizing that it was arranged easily enough for even me to play! I probably drove my siblings crazy plinking out those notes over and over.
But my favorite memory of Christmas bells is the old carol by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled, "I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day." The song is anchored by a strong poem that tells his personal story of disappointment and discouragement that many people experience during the holidays. He shares his deep feelings of despair that mirror those of many as he states that we are still far from peace on earth. He writes, "For hate is strong and mocks the song, Of peace on earth, good will to men."
Longfellow wrote these words on Christmas Day of 1864, months before the end of our Civil War while brother was still killing brother on our battlefields. His own son had been wounded in this conflict. so Longfellow knew firsthand of the desperate need for, but absence of, earthly peace. He also had experienced the premature death of his wife three years earlier due to burns she received in a fire that he had tried unsuccessfully to save her from. Longfellow wrote from a deep sense of pain and longing.
His poem of despair turns a corner, however, in the fourth verse which confidently proclaims, "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 only was able to write such a stanza of hope and joy from a heart of faith. The war still raged, his wife was still gone, but he could rejoice because he knew that the birth of the baby Jesus eventually would lead to a reunion with his wife, to a healed son, and to a peaceful earth.
He knew deeply and personally that Jesus Christ changes everything! He knew that this was not an empty hope, but a certainty awaiting its final fulfillment. Because Jesus died and rose again, Longfellow could have peace on earth even in the midst of grief and loss. And so can we. By trusting in this same Jesus, we too can know the peace and joy that only a resurrected savior can bring even among all of life's losses and struggles. If you've not yet met the one whose birthday we celebrate on Dec. 25, make it a point to do so this year so that you might be able to sing with Longfellow of those wonderful Christmas bells that peal away all despair!
George Bowers is the Pastor of Antioch Church of the Brethren in Woodstock and the author of "Blessings," "Valley Verses," and "Valley Verses, Volume 2." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.