We live in a divided time. Recent events compounded with the rise of widely accessible social media outlets have made the division in the U.S. certainly more apparent, if not more severe. Following the presidential inauguration, 2017 has been the stage for angry protests from progressive groups, heart-breaking displays of white nationalist racism, and senseless mass-murders. All the while, recorded evidence of police brutality has become commonplace and, outside our borders, the global refugee crisis rages on.
And yet, as happens every year, the season of Christmas has returned, and with it the sound of songs and verses carrying the message of “peace on earth” and “goodwill among men.” In the midst of these times, one wonders, “Where is peace on earth and goodwill between men?” And if these cannot be found, then why celebrate the season at all? For mere diversion? To fantasize about a world more perfect than ours? No, Christmas offers something more, and by looking at the background of a classic carol, we can begin to see why.
SEARCHING AND SUFFERING
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a nineteenth century American poet, known for such works as “Paul Revere’s Ride.” As many have fond memories of reading this historically inaccurate poem in elementary school, it may be surprising to know that Longfellow’s life was actually marked by great hardship and tragedy.
As a young boy, he grew-up in a community devastated by the War of 1812. In 1835, his wife of less than five years, Mary, died due to complications with a miscarriage. Later in life, Longfellow’s wife of about twenty years, Fanny, with whom he raised multiple children, died tragically in a fire. Severely burned in a failed attempt to save her and suffering from immense grief, Henry was unable to attend Fanny’s funeral.
Earlier that same year, on April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. Thus begun the deadliest war in U.S. history (claiming the lives of approximately 625,000 American men) and the true apex of American division. It tested the very fabric of national unity and identity, and at its heart were many of the same questions of human dignity that affect our country today.
THE WAR HITS HOME
In November of 1863, Longfellow received agonizing news that his oldest son, Charles, a Union soldier, had been critically wounded in battle. Although Charles eventually recovered from the injury to his spine, avoiding paralysis by less than an inch, the time by his son’s bedside was dark for Henry. On Christmas Eve, with the deep shadows of his wife’s death and son’s injury looming overhead, and surrounded by the chaotic bloodshed of the Civil War, he wrote the lyrics to the poem "Christmas Bells." It is commonly sung as a carol today titled, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
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!
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!"
Longfellow made the same observation many of us would be right to make today, when our own contemporary forms of hatred “mock” any concept of peace in the world or goodwill between men. The beloved Christmas carols are sweet and captivating, but are they true? The poet brings resolution to the conflict in his closing verse:
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 finds his peace in knowing that God is alive, reigning over the universe, and that he will make all things right. This is certainly a hope rooted in the Bible. However, the story of the Gospel, indeed the story of Christmas, has much more to say.
GOD WITH US
At Christmas, we remember that God didn’t just stay on his throne, distant from humanity’s brokenness. Instead, He took on flesh, came to earth, and dwelt among us (John 1:14). The prophets gave Jesus the name, Immanuel, which means “God with us.”
In scripture, we see that the root cause of all brokenness is sin, and sin’s final consequence is death. Jesus lived a sinless life, but still felt our pain, tasted our sadness, and experienced our brokenness. He even wept, was abused, and eventually died, bearing God’s ultimate punishment against sin. He then rose from the dead to show that he had completely defeated death and therefore sin.
THE POSSIBILITY OF UNITY
What does all of this mean for division? Ephesians 2:14 calls Jesus “our peace” because when he died, he tore down the wall that divides different people and people groups. How? Racial division and hatred are caused by sin, but Jesus defeated sin and all of its consequences in his death and resurrection. He did this so he could create one new people, made up of some from “every nation, tribe, and tongue” (Revelation 7:9).
When we place our faith in Jesus, laying down our kingdom for his, he changes our divisive hearts into hearts that can love God and other people, despite any differences we may have. In fact, because of the freedom the gospel brings, we can actually celebrate our differences. The gospel is the only real hope for reconciliation, because only the gospel can change hearts.
HOPE IN WHAT'S TO COME
The hope of Christmas then is that God has come to earth to experience our brokenness and destroy all that divides us. And one day, he will come back to right all wrongs, finally uniting all of his people with one heart and mind. Then, no hatred will exist.
At Christmas we look back and we look forward, living in what we call “the already, but not yet.” This gives us peace in the midst of the turmoil around us. Therefore, let us celebrate and proclaim along with Longfellow and the angels who appeared to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace and good will toward men.”
Stephen lives in Texas, where he is a seminary student, minister, and barista. He loves his wife and enjoys music, reading, and cheering for the San Antonio Spurs. Stephen's hope in writing is to simply point others to Jesus, while growing as a thinker and communicator.