Sunday, December 24, 2017

I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day -- Christmas and the Civil War

    What value is the "promise of Christmas" amidst the struggles of life?  Is it only for the happy hearts who can blithely sing Christmas songs and madly shop for gifts?  Is the no room for the sad struggling heart?
    The words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his 1863 poem "Christmas Bells" wrestles with the tension between "joy" and "sadness" at Christmas.  Understanding the history of his times and life will expand our appreciation of the familiar Christmas carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."
    Yes, the upbeat "hope came on Christmas Day" is true.   Jesus, the Son of God was born, and He is the hope of the world.  In Him alone is our hope for forgiveness of sin and the restoration to peace with God the Father.  Through Jesus there is "peace on earth, good will to men"
    But does that mean that all "struggle of faith" is magically eliminated?  No.  The world is often not a happy place full of "good cheer and joy".  It wasn't during the night of Jesus' birth for the Jewish nation living under the tyranny of Roman rule and it wasn't for Henry Longfellow in 1863.  But out of Longfellow's struggle with grief and perplexity over the turmoil of the war came the words for a Christmas carol that many today casually sing as "just another song".  The poem "Christmas Bells" that he wrote in December of 1863 reflects his struggle to put the optimistic "promise of Christmas" into perspective within a life of sadness and struggle and loss.

"Christmas Bells"
(verses 4 & 5 were edited out to create the Christmas Carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" published in 1872)

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 from 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 hearthstones 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!

    In 1861 the Civil War broke out and our nation was divided by anger and war.  Before the war Longfellow was among those calling for the abolition of slavery, being associated with the New England Anti-Slavery Association.  Longfellow's famous poem "Paul Revere's Ride" published in 1860 was written to call for a new revolution to give freedom to all.  That was a righteous and noble hope.  But no one could foresee the tidal wave of conflict and suffering that would be needed to bring about that change in our nation.  What many presumed at first in 1861 would be a short quick revolution was by 1863 still painfully dragging on battle after battle.  The genuine hope for good was facing the reality of a long drawn out cruel war.  This harsh reality challenged even the staunchest desire to see good change take place.
    In 1861 Longfellow also experienced great personal tragedy when his wife, Fanny, died in a tragic accident.  Her dress caught fire as she lite a candle.  She ran into Longfellow's study for help.  He tried extinguishing the flames with a small rug, but failed, so he threw his arms around her to smother the flames.  Though successful in smothering the flames, Fanny died the next day from her injuries (July 10, 1861).  And Longfellow himself suffered burns to his face, arms and hands so badly that he was unable to be at her funeral.
    In his journal for Christmas day 1861 he wrote "How inexpressibly sad are all holidays."  That next July in 1862 he wrote "I can make no record of these days.  Better leave them wrapped in silence.  Perhaps someday God will give me peace."  On Christmas day 1862 he wrote " 'A merry Christmas' say the children, but that is no more for me."  Yes, the bells ring on the Christmas promise of peace & hope, but Longfellow's heart struggles with the harsh realities of life both nationally & personally.
    In March of 1863, Longfellow's oldest son, Charles (born June 9, 1844), left home without his father's permission to join the Union army.  Charles wrote his father "I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave but I cannot any longer.  I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be any good."
    On December 1st, 1863 Longfellow received a telegram saying Charles had been severely wounded during the battle of New Hope Church in Virginia during the Mine Run Campaign.  The bullet had entered his left shoulder, ripped across his back, exiting the right shoulder.  Would Charles live?  And if he did, would he be paralyzed?  For Longfellow, December was a time of traveling to see if his son was still alive, then bringing him back home for a long painful recovery.
    Longfellow does what writers/poets often do:  he processes his emotions through words, exploring a path through the conflicts within his heart.  Look again at the poem.
    The poem starts off in verses 1, 2 & 3 with observing the "typical expectations" of Christmas.  Yes, the message put out is about peace on earth, goodwill to men, recalling the angel's proclamation to the shepherds the night Jesus was born.  There is hope!  Into this troubled world, the One who will resolved the troubles has come!  That's "the unbroken song" everyone knows and many dutifully nod in agreement "ho hum, heard it all before, let's move on".
    Then Longfellow shifts to the political reality of his times, the Civil War which seems to contradict the proclamation given to the shepherds by the angles.  These two verses (#4 and #5 omitted in the 1872 version "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day") openly wrestle with the conflict of "life's reality" during the Civil War of Longfellow's time vs "the angels' proclamation".  Where is the peace on earth and goodwill to men as the cannons thunder and soldiers die and families are ripped apart with loss and death?  I am sure Longfellow is also wrestling with the sufferings in his private life as well.  Where is the peace on earth & goodwill to men in the loss of my wife, and the suffering of my son?  In his heart he honestly expresses what he feels in verse #6 of his poem:  "in despair I bowed my head: There is no peace on Earth, for hate is strong and mocks the song" that is the message of Christmas.
    These words come across much stronger to me in meaning knowing both the national and personal struggles Longfellow is living with as he writes this poem.  Knowing the history makes the movement into the last verse #7 even more powerful.  Yes indeed, evil and sadness and loss mock the Christmas promise.  Life's realities mocked the promise for the Jewish people living under Rome's crushing rule the night the angels came to the shepherds.  In 1863 national & personal sufferings mocked it to Longfellow.  And even today evil and sadness and loss are still mocking the promise of "Peace on earth, goodwill to men!"  But genuine "Christmas celebration" calls us back to the promise of the angel's proclaimed:   Jesus will be the solution. "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.  The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men."
    Longfellow in his poem Christmas Bells is laying out the challenge he is facing.  In the process of writing, he is setting a goal that he sees he needs to strive for;  setting out a path of faith that he needs to travel in his heart.  Did writing the poem resolve all his struggles.  I doubt it.  Broken discouraged  hearts are not so simply fixed.  But knowing the path we should travel, remembering the promise we should cling to in the struggles we feel gives us "a way forward".  We no longer have to linger where we are, bewildered in doubt and confusion.  We once again have a goal we can focus on moving our emotions and faith toward.
    One last thought.  I've heard it said by a friend who has spent years studying & portraying Abraham Lincoln that when someone asked President Lincoln if he thought God was "on our side", meaning on the side of the Union cause, Lincoln replied something like this:  It's not 'is God on our side', but are we on God's side that is important.  Christmas challenges us to that goal.  It's not "will God help me to do what I want" in life, but it's God calling us to accept His goals and hope.  He wishes to redeem us from our sin, but we must accept His terms -- that Jesus Christ is the only way of forgiveness.  Christmas, the celebration of Jesus' birth, is not about "having a good time and getting what I want";  it's about remembering that God offers what I really need at great cost to Himself.  In all the distractions of life, the struggles of life, the conflicts of life, do not walk by the greatest gift ever offered: peace with God through His Son Jesus.  When we accept God's gift of forgiveness through Jesus, we then have the anchor we need to navigate our way through the struggles and conflicts and loss of life to our Heavenly Home across the Jordan.  "Merry Christmas" becomes a reminder that Our Heavenly Father "is not dead, nor doth He sleep, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men".