The Ringing of Bells: A Christmas Meditation

The third of the three short meditations I contributed to a Hanging of the Greens service last month. Merry Christmas to you all!

It was December 1863, and America’s bloody Civil War had entered its third winter. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was grieving: two years before, his wife had died in a fire; less than a month before, his eldest son had been badly wounded in battle. As Christmas dawned, Longfellow put pen to paper and wrote a new poem:

1912 version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"
Longfellow’s poem was soon set to music, though (as in this 1912 hymnal) not always the tune most of us know best –

…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!

…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 Longfellow, we live in a noisy world. Cannon don’t thunder in our land, but arguments assault our ears. Voice after angry voice clamors for our attention. Like Longfellow, we sometimes struggle to hear anything true or hopeful rise above the deceiving, dismaying din.

But that Christmas morning, a joyful noise did penetrate Longfellow’s gloom: the sound of church bells playing “old, familiar carols.”

Mom ringing hand bells earlier this month
Among her many talents, my mom rings in her church’s hand bell choir

Longfellow’s bells tolled from the “belfries of all Christendom,” ours from the hands of skilled ringers. But whether large or small, “loud and deep” or high and clear, the bells of Christmas morn wordlessly proclaim good news:

God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.

Sometimes we come to sanctuaries like this one for silence. We need simply to be still and know that God is God.

But may this season also be noisy, with the “wild and sweet” sound of bells rising above the world’s uproar to announce the joyous news of Christ’s birth.

<<Read the previous post in this series

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