I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
#267 in the Celebration Hymnal

You all know this Christmas Carol—it has been sung in many versions. Have you listened to the words? They are perfect for this time of year—bringing joy and rejoicing in the angel’s song while also reflecting the truth that some are not in peace and some places are not safe in our lives. As we enter the Christmas session and then the cold days of January, we long for a true light that shines past the Holiday. As is often true of the Gospel, Jesus speaks Life right here in the darkness and messiness of living, not in an unreal pretend state of nice and sterile. This carol is a version of the Gospel for us today as our nation seems divided and war and economic uncertainty abound and peace on earth seems now a distant thought.

The carol was originally a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He wrote the song at the height of the US Civil War. Several years earlier his wife had died tragically in a fire and the year he wrote the text (Christmas, 1863), his son had been severely wounded as a Union soldier and sent home “safe but broken”. This song was his reflection on the seemingly evil and upside down world as he was awakened on Christmas by the bells of a church ringing. There are originally seven verses, not the five often sung today. The song is printed on the next page.

Notice a few things. The song starts with a promise of peace and good will—an angelic call at the birth of Christ. But quickly the poet enters despair and then sees war and fighting and “no peace on earth for hate is strong” which seems to make the song a lie. The carol ends realizing that the Gospel is about a small but profound change, God has come as Love among us. God does not abandon but loves and saves us even in the dark of life. This produces a repenting of attitude that starts small and little like a peasant child but raises the angels’ voices. Peace comes in these small ways, being present with God. God brings the peace and calls us to do the same. Even if the world seems dark or cold or full of hate, it is the world that is the lie! Peace on earth good will to all! Is the cry of Christmas and the change that occurs even as Christ comes to dwell in our hearts.

1. 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 !

2. 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 !

3. 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 !

4. 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 !

5. 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 !

6. 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 !”

7. 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 !"

Rev. Dr. Tim Harmon, Pastor
First Presbyterian Church in Lake Park, Iowa.

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