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            MERRY CHRISTMAS    
Tuesday, December 25 2001

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The following article is from Alliance Life Magazine, a denominational publication of the Christian Alliance Church, about the history of a favorite Christmas song beloved by most Americans and others around the world, penned by famed American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Thanks to Jim and Judy Martin for sending it to us, and Judy for transcribing it. It is altered only slightly where it refers to denominaton-specific missions. —Webmaster


Now is not the time to turn down the volume

Church bells – we don’t hear them much anymore. Instead, we hear songs of the season reproduced in just about every way imaginable. Christmas tree lights blink to the synthetic sounds of "Jingle Bells." Carolers sing about decking the halls with boughs of holly, while children rehearse "Silent Night" for the annual church pageant. Even singing chipmunks echo the holiday message.

Walking through the malls and browsing in the stores, you’ll hear Jesus proclaimed everywhere. Does that astound you? Inside the hurry and commercialism of the holiday season, if you listen, you’ll hear a quiet whisper in the background: the birth of Jesus is still the central message. It’s a paradox. The outward appearance may be commercial and God-omitting, but the message in the music is mostly God-centered.

For some, there is yet another paradox. The celebratory atmosphere of the season is marred by tragedy and separation. Events in America and abroad have changed the holiday season, dimming the lights and quieting the music in thousands of households across the United States. Because of terrorist activity, there is a lonely void where family members lived just a few months ago. Military members are absent, too, serving in distant lands – isolated from their families – protecting our freedom and our way of life.

However, we aren’t the first generation to experience this terrible contradiction, and we probably won’t be the last. As long as God allows evil to coexist with good, we’ll wrestle with conflicting emotions and appearances.

It was Christmastime during one of the darkest periods of American history, the Civil War. No stranger to hardship, Henry W. Longfellow lost his wife, Frances, in a fire in July 1861. Two years later, his son was seriously wounded while serving as a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac. War had torn the country in two, and resolution of the conflict seemed a distant dream.

Longfellow, hearing the message of the church bells in the background as they rang the anthem of Christmas, was disturbed by the apparent discrepancy. The message seemed out of context. He sat at his desk and penned the following words:

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.

I 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.

As he thought about his words, reality began to register. The bells echoed the angels’ announcement from long ago, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men" (Luke 2:14, KJV). But war had usurped peace. God seemed distant and removed from His creation. Longfellow continued:

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."

As so often is the case, God invades our despair with His Word and dispels our darkest moments with His light. Instead of the bells trailing off softly in the distance, leaving him in despair, Longfellow heard the bells and their message louder and clearer than ever before. Whatever hymn was playing, the proclamation was undeniable: God is still on the throne.

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’s circumstances may not be so far removed from our own. They probably aren’t bells, but the hymns are playing all around us, in the background. They proclaim our Savior’s birth – the Prince of Peace. They offer hope for a world desperately trying to make sense of the times and events tainted by violence and grief. Is this a good time to turn down the volume? Not at all.

Now is the time to proclaim the message louder and clearer than ever: "God is not dead, nor doth He sleep." In fact, He is very interested and involved in all levels of our lives. From national and international interests to our personal frailties, He came for such a time as this.

In uncertain times our tendency is to shrink back instead of venture out. This month we celebrate the birth of Jesus and God’s greatest gift to us – His only Son. We feature stories of God at work [abroad] and at home. As you consider the amazing things recorded here, remember that...as we invite those who don’t know our Savior to place their faith in Him, the world is singing along. Whether they realize it or not, they’re singing the truth about Jesus. They’re playing our songs.

Mark Failing
Interim Editor
Alliance Life Magazine

Check out the contributions to this year's Christmas page, including a third memoir new as of Christmas Eve. Join the Forum! Please share your reflections, too! They might be random short thoughts or recounting more complete memories; "stories." What did you wish for? What did you get? Materially? Spiritually? What made, or broke, a Christnas? How is this Christmas shaping up?

Webmaster Jon Kennedy
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