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!
This is the first stanza of a poem written by the great American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1863 amid the American Civil war. He noticed that amidst the death and destruction of America's deadliest war, all around the country men and women were exchanging sentiments of Christmas cheer and singing carols rather than exchanging condolences. The church bells were not tolling in funerary sobriety but rather pealing in celebration. This poem, later itself adapted into a Christmas carol, reflects on this incongruity. How can a nation surrounded by sorrow carry on with Christmas as usual? How dare the bells call a grieving mother or a tired soldier to celebrate? This exhortation to rejoice, these wishes of peace and good will are not insensitive or in vain, rather they get to the very heart of what it means to be a Christian.
Saint Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, "Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice." Always is a word without exception. One who has placed his hope in the Lord may not have his joy taken from him. This is not to say that there is no place for sorrow or that there will not be momentary pain, rather it is a reminder that for one who lives in Christ, there is a peace this world cannot give, and a joy that cannot be taken away. It is indeed all the more fitting that the Church bells ring joy and Christians everywhere celebrate even in times of crisis. Jesus Christ our blessed Lord, the second person of the Holy Trinity, the only begotten Son of God, the Eternal Word through whom all things were made, has taken on flesh, is forever united to humanity, and abides with us still. Christ is the new dawn that shines on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death (Luke 1:79) and He cannot be taken away from those who love him and do his will. He is forever united to us in our humanity.
Pope Benedict XVI put it this way in his 2010 Christmas message:
"Dear brothers and sisters listening to me here in Rome and throughout the world, I joyfully proclaim the message of Christmas: God became man; He came to dwell among us. God is not distant: He is “Emmanuel”, God-with-us. He is no stranger: He has a face, the face of Jesus. This message is ever new, ever surprising, for it surpasses even our most daring hope.”
Our hope is not abstract. Our joy is not wishful thinking. The joy of mankind who once laid in a manger in a cave in Bethlehem now abides in the tabernacles of churches throughout the world. He waits there to come into the hearts of those who would receive Him. So it was from the days of Herod unto today and so it shall be until the end of days (Matthew 28:20). Our own time of confusion, pain, loneliness and loss is no exception. This year has been one of trial for many. We find ourselves in a moment of confusion, disorder, and distress. Many of us have lost our jobs, some have lost loved ones. Men and women find themselves isolated from family and friends. It can seem as though evil has triumphed, in society, in politics, and even in our own homes. We see brother pit against brother in a spirit not unlike that which existed in this country when Longfellow put pen to paper over a hundred years ago. Indeed in the same poem he laments:
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!"
Like our ancestors before us, we have and will continue to face hardship but we can learn from the wisdom of the past. Longfellow, while grappling with the very real misfortunes of the time, knew the truth which is the hope of Christians. God will not be mocked (Galatians 6:7). God and his goodness will always triumph and evil will always know defeat. Our mourning shall be turned into joy, and our sorrow to dancing (Psalm 30:11). Knowing these truths, Longfellow ends his poem thusly:
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."
And so even with stay at home orders, election disputes, death, and sorrow, hope springs eternal. On Christmas Day, throughout the world the bells will ring out again to announce with joy the birth of Christ. Men and women will attend Mass and hear the song of the angels at Bethlehem, "Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax hominibus." (Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.) They will experience not just a sign of hope but Hope himself, the very Word made flesh in the Holy Eucharist. This is the meaning of Christmas, God making his dwelling among us in this imperfect world. It is in the Eucharist that we are invited to encounter Emmanuel (God with us) and it is in this sacrament that we will truly find "peace on earth."