Among the many beautiful songs and carols of this season, there’s one that, for me at least, has always held deep and profound meaning for these times in which we live:
You’re probably aware that this song came from a poem written by Portland, Maine native Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; what you may not know is the story behind it. Longfellow actually wrote these words on Christmas Day of 1863, during the dark days of the American Civil War, a time when this nation was divided against itself, families were pitted one against the other, and blood was shed all over the land. Longfellow, though a strong abolitionist himself, was very vocal in his hatred of the war, and believing wholly in the power of God to move on earth, he prayed constantly to the Lord to end its madness. But when his oldest son Charles, a 19-year-old lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac (and who, incidentally, had enlisted without his father’s blessing), was wounded in battle and sent home to recover, Longfellow’s prayers gave way to despair and even rage. So it was on that Christmas morning when the poet heard church bells ringing near his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, deep feelings and memories began to stir within him. It occurred to Longfellow that the irony of it was disturbing; after all, this was hardly a Christmas of peace and goodwill, and yet the bells still rang!
We can understand the feeling; indeed, nearly 150 years later Longfellow’s grief-stricken lament continues to echo with familiarity. Sadly, as Christmas 2012 approaches, there still “is no peace on earth,” a grim reality brought home to us this week in the tragic and senseless killing of 20 children and six adults at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. And as if that weren’t more than enough, the daily news cycles seemed full to overflowing with of stories of continuing poverty, strife and injustice, resulting in an ongoing spiral of oppression and violence. Conflicts abound, and hatred and prejudice is indeed strong, even in our own backyards, tarnishing the vision of a peaceable kingdom this December 25.
In every generation, there are many who see the world as it exists and conclude that God’s vision of “peace on earth and goodwill to all” can never come to pass; certainly this was the sentiment shared many in 1863. Longfellow, despite the depths of his own personal grief and anguish, did not. For even in the midst of his great hardship and the future’s uncertainty, deep within his own soul, Longfellow also understood the more paramount meaning of Christmas: HOPE.
That’s certainly something we sometimes lose sight of in the midst of all our parties, presents, pageants and preparations this time of year; that Christmas is, ultimately, all about hope: hope for a people mired in the darkness of life’s often difficult way; hope for a society that has much to learn about itself; hope that even given the presence of evil in this world, it will not triumph, and that by God’s own grace and abundant love, peace on earth can exist, with goodwill prevailing amongst the people whom God loves. Christmas is a celebration of life and of living; the affirmation for the faithful that all that for which we dream – peace, justice, love and joy – will come to pass in time, for we’ve seen a glimpse of it in Jesus Christ, whose birth we proclaim and whose coming again we await.
And as the body of Christ, we are the people entrusted to embrace and carry forward that same hopeful vision. In our church in New Hampshire, this past Sunday was the day set aside for the annual Children’s Christmas Pageant, a joyous and much loved tradition here, and my first as a still somewhat “new” pastor of this congregation. To be honest, however, as details of the horrifying events in Connecticut began to unfold, I did give some thought to canceling or at least postponing the pageant – at the very least, I reasoned, it seemed in poor taste for us to engage in such lighthearted activity when so many were suffering and filled with such grief.
In the end, however, we decided to honor the memory of these children and adults by doing everything we could to love and nurture our own children, seeking to truly live unto that promise of HOPE – not only in these days of Advent and Christmas, but also in our love and care of one another in this place throughout the year. And I’m glad we did; for in and through all the laughter, tears and insight provided by our own gaggle of shepherds, animals and baby angels, we discovered yet again that “peace on earth” is truly more than greeting card sentiment; it is the gift and promise of our Lord that sustains our hope; it’s what challenges us in this life to live in the certainty of that promise until that glorious day when our hope will finally be fulfilled.
As one singer has observed, “it’s a hard life wherever you go,” and our world has seen more than its share of difficulty. But let us not become so discouraged by the evening news, nor so overwhelmed with what seems like a hopeless future that we risk forgetting the great and lasting promise of our Lord, and so lose the great joy and hope that exists in Christmas and glows from the light from a tiny stable in Bethlehem. Like the shepherds of long ago, we are the ones who are called to run and tell the good news of the Savior’s birth, and keep the promised vision of peace alive. It’s always been the case, and it’s especially so now: we must never let the bells go silent.Shalom Chaverim. Dona Nobis Pacem. Merry Christmas …and may peace be with you!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry