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Peace That Lasts [From a Faith Perspective—Bucks County Courier Times]

Christmas. The word itself, whether spoken, heard, or even thought upon, evokes memories. These memories that come upon us during this season may be pleasant ones as the sights and sounds of Christmases past warm our hearts and awaken in us anticipation and expectation for Christmas present. But for many, the memories of Christmases past are not so pleasant, and instead of awakening excitement, the season carries only pain and sorrow. Instead of warm joys, it brings only cold loneliness. For some, Christmas present will be enjoyed in relative peace and comfort, while for others, the state of their lives will leave little promise or room for either. In addition to these personal circumstantial disparities in our experiences of Christmas, there is the state of the world to contend with. In a season of celebration marked by generosity and kindness, one in which the words peace and joy abound, there is a harsh reality that cannot be denied. This year has been one racked with violence, tension, and derision. War abroad and the perpetration of unimaginable atrocities demonstrate that all is not well with human nature. And in countries and communities on continents we rarely hear of in the news, these evils are daily realities in addition to hunger, privation, disease, and displacement. 

When thinking on such things, ranging from personal loss and suffering to the world-weary burden bearing down upon humanity, it is completely understandable to ask what has Christmas to do with any of this? Is there nothing more to Christmas than the temporary distraction from our individual and collective human woes? Are the notions of generosity and kindness, of peace and joy only fleeting pretenses to make us feel better about ourselves and the world for just a bit? Or, is there something more, something deeper and more lasting to Christmas? As a committed Christian, I say emphatically, and without apology, yes, yes, yes. The state of our world and lives today is precisely the sort of broken and sorrowing world into which Jesus was born over 2,000 years ago. From shepherds to Magi, from those living under Roman occupation to those burdened by the harshness of life in the ancient world, the good news declared by the angels that blessed night was welcomed hopefulness and joy.

When I think on Christmas this way, I cannot help but think of the poem, “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The story of this poem is a powerful and inspiring one. Longfellow was no stranger to suffering, no stranger to world-weariness. His wife, Fanny, died tragically from burns suffered when her dress caught fire. The recent widower’s son who volunteered to fight for the Union was grievously wounded in December 1863. Longfellow’s pen fell silent. Despite being a man of faith, he lost the will to write, let alone celebrate Christmas. But the following December in 1864, on Christmas day, the bells of the local church pierced the silent darkness of Longfellow’s despair and called him to write a poem that would eventually be set to music and sung at Christmas every year since. As you read it, think not only of its eloquence, but of the individual and collective contexts from which it comes. Think on how that compares to the individual and collective contexts into which Jesus was born. And think finally on how this message speaks to our own individual and collective contexts today. 

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 men.”

This article was originally published in-print in the Bucks County Courier Times on December 24, 2023.


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