Hymns, Carols, and Christmas 2014 vs. 1914

Merry Christmas everyone! I hope everyone is filled with the peace, joy, comfort, and love of family, friends, and especially, of the Christ child, whose birth is commemorated today. With the season of Christmas upon us, Christmas hymns are absolutely my favorite! We like to think they are all happy, simple, little songs sung throughout the holidays because they have a message wrapped in a pretty, little bow. Hmm…Let me start with the third verse of “O Holy Night”:

Truly He taught us to love one another;
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother;
And in His name all oppression shall cease.
Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,
Let all within us praise His holy name.

Interesting…this is the first verse from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”:

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old,
From angels bending near the earth,
To touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men
From heavens all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay
          To hear the angels sing.

If you wanted to sum up the Christmastide in one word, that word is peace. But in today’s world, there is so much suffering, war, pain. How is peace possible?

An overlooked Christmas carol is “I Heard the Bell on Christmas Day” based on a 1863 poem “Christmas Bells” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In the midst of the Civil War, his oldest son Charles, joined the Union cause as a soldier without his father’s blessing. In late November, he was wounded by a Confederate bullet. Longfellow now had to cope with what happened his son coupled with the loss of his wife, whose dress caught fire, killing her two years earlier. “As he sat nursing his son on the long road to recovery, listening to the church bells peal forth Christmas tidings, he struggled with the message of the angels proclaiming, ‘Peace on earth, goodwill towards men’.” On Christmas day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned this poem 151 years ago today.

Many of us can identify with Longfellow’s words. Verse one of the carol goes:

“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 the bells are ringing.”

Let me add a couple of stanzas from the poem:

“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!”

Back to the song:

“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.’
But the bells are ringing.”

“Then rang 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.’”

So what happened 100 years ago today in 1914? The Christmas Truce. In the heat of battle, German and British soldiers stopped fighting, climbed out of their trenches, walked into no man’s land to celebrate Christmas with the opposing side–“can you hear the bells they’re ringing?” They sang songs, traded items of various sorts, ate food together, played games of soccer. Peace prevailed. A truce was unofficially declared

Many leaders and groups preemptively tried to have an official cease fire.  Even Pope Benedict XV, on 7 December 1914, begged for an official truce between the warring governments asking “that the guns may fall silent at least upon the night the angels sang.” All attempts failed, but the soldiers in the trenches stopped and unofficially declared a truce.

Christmas is deeper than shopping, decorating, and opening presents, it’s a time to reflect, be still, and hear the Christmas bells. Emmanuel has come. Peace is on earth.

With everything going on in our nation, it’s easy to forget about peace. It’s easy to forget peace starts with us, individually. “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me.”

pax vobiscum


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