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"The Bells of Christmas" by Rev. Andrew Warner, Plymouth Church UCC - December 24, 2014

posted Jan 5, 2016, 9:04 AM by Plymouth Church UCC

Of all the stained glass in our sanctuary, my favorite is that of the shepherds on the hillside outside of Bethlehem.  I’ve loved it for years.  This Christmas I started to wonder in new ways about the scene.  The shepherds have heard the angels sing.  “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace.”  But they remain on the hillside.  The shepherds can see the star over Bethlehem burning so brightly that kings come from the east.  But still they remain on the hillside.


I relate to the hillside shepherds.  I know what they are thinking.  It can be hard to believe “peace on earth.”  Doesn’t often seem that way.  With bombs in Paris and mass shootings in our country and knife attacks in Israel: peace on earth doesn’t seem real.  Not to mention the personal, private challenges many of us carry.  No wonder the shepherds remained on the hillside despite God’s most fantastic light and sound show ever.


Years ago Henry Wadsworth Longfellow gave voice to this doubt when he wrote a Christmas hymn.  It began sweetly:

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 for all.


But just when it seemed like a classic Bing Crosby Christmas tune, Longfellow changed the sweet hymn into something more hauntingly honest.

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 for all.”


Longfellow’s reasons for despair are easy to document.  Other stanzas of the hymn talk of the Civil War.  Such as, “The cannon thundered in the South, and with the sound the carols drowned.”  And while this was in the foreground, more personal issues lurked in the background.  Longfellow’s wife Fanny died in a gruesome fire.  It happened at home.  Fanny trimmed her seven year old son’s hair and decided to keep a bit as a momento.  A few drops of the sealing wax dripped onto her dress, a breeze turned the drops into flames.  Henry tried to extinguish them, burning his face in the process. Fanny died the next day of her wounds.  

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The trauma changed Longfellow.  It’s said he grew a beard to hide the scars on his face.  On the one year anniversary, Longfellow wrote in his diary, “I can make no record of these days.  Better leave them wrapped in silence.  Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”  Christmas was especially sad, as it can be for all who grieve.  Again in his diary he wrote, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”  


All the beauty and joy of Christmas can make it hard for us to name our doubt and fear and pain.  Like Longfellow, we all carry days wrapped in silence.  Earlier this fall I mentioned in a sermon that I’m estranged from one of my brothers.  A few asked me if it’s just me.  But no, my whole family is estranged from my brother.  For the first few years after the estrangement became clear, my mom and grandmother would have an annual conversation on Christmas Eve.  The gist of it was, “maybe next year we’ll reconcile.”  But hope delayed hollows out a part of the heart.  Eventually the reality of estrangement made it to hard to mention the hope of reconciliation.  


We all have those moments when reality makes it hard to hope.  A job loss.  An illness.  A broken relationship.  An addiction relapse.  A national tragedy deeply felt.  Til we say with Longfellow, “There is no peace on earth.”  


Longfellow remained silent for many Christmases.  Then one day in Cambridge he awoke to the bells of First Church peeling out a Christmas greeting.  He heard it as if for the first time:

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 for all.”


What changed for Longfellow?  The bells rang every Christmas Day but in December 1864 he heard them as if for the first time.  That November his oldest son was severely wounded in battle; by Christmas he knew his son would live.  President Lincoln had won reelection and the war seemed finally about to end.  These moments, like the bells, pierced his days wrapped in silence with comfort and joy.  


What moments help you hear anew the hope of God?  Just this month I think of three moments which bring me hope.  While all the world shudders because of terrorism, something remarkable happened in northern Kenya.  It’s an area of Kenya where Muslims outnumber Christians, a region host to many atrocities by the terrorist group al-Shabab.  Two weeks ago al-Shabab bandits stopped a bus carrying Muslims and Christians.  As in other attacks, the extremists tried to separate the Muslims and the Christians so that they could kill the Christians.  The Muslims on the bus refused, saying, “Kill us together or leave us alone.”  The show of unity by Muslims with Christians unnerved the bandits, saving lives, peace proclaimed on a terrified bus.  


Closer to home I think of a friend, struggling with cancer, who begins a new experimental round of therapy.  The sound of hope in the drip of medicine.



And I remember Kim Becker and Mary Schultz, who married this month after a thirty year engagement.  We gathered here on the chancel, thirty years to the day of their first date.  The first date was up in Green Bay; it was a snowy day, and these two women who love to run went for a run through deserted snow-covered streets decorated for Christmas.  Over the course of thirty years they didn’t think they’d ever be legally married.  But one night this Advent, a small circle of family and friends surrounded them.  People lit candles as they shared stories and well-wishes and prayers until our once dark sanctuary glowed.  Light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.


The window in our sanctuary may capture the shepherds on the hillside.  But they didn’t remain there for long.  The shepherds made their way to Bethlehem, where they found a newborn child born to very poor parents.  It would have been so easy to miss this child as a sign of hope.  The innkeeper didn’t see it.  The townspeople didn’t rejoice.  Fellow travelers kept walking past.  But the shepherds ducked in to see the new baby.  They paused long enough to catch the grace and awe and hope of the moment; to know in the peeling cries of the child, peace and goodwill were alive.


The shepherds heard the bells of Christmas in the cries of a newborn.  Longfellow heard it in the voice of his son, wounded but safe.  I heard it in the wedding vows of friends.  I pray you can hear it too this Christmas:

     ….. loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail

With peace on earth, good will for all.”


Alleluia and Amen.






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“I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” by Longfellow


Henry_Wadsworth_Longfellow_by_Thomas_Buchanan_Read_IMG_4414.jpg

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 for all.


And thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will for all.


Till ringing, singing on its way

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime

Of peace on earth, good will for all.


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 for all.


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 for all.


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 for all.”


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.”



Sources

  • “Kenyan Muslims shield Christians in Mandera Bus Attack, ‘Kill us all or leave them alone,’” Africa Cradle, Dec. 15, 2015.

  • Stewart, Tom, “The Story Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,’” December 20, 2001.


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