“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 th’unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Peace on earth, good will to men. The song of the angels that fateful Christmas night in Bethlehem appears at odds with contemporary events. War rages in numerous countries. ISIS, or radical Islam, advances through the war-torn countries of the Middle East. The devastating toll of the Ebola outbreak has yet to peak. And racial tensions in our nation are as volatile as ever. No, if we look around us, peace seems to be hiding.
We are not the first generation to experience despair due to war and racial tension. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s premier poets, lived through our nation’s Civil War. Henry’s son, Charley, fought in the Union Army. The war raged for four long years over the issues of slavery, state’s rights, and national unity. In November 1863, Charley was badly wounded in battle. Passionate feelings about the war welled up as Henry nursed his son back to health. On December 25, 1863, Henry expressed his thoughts as he penned the words to the carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Longfellow lamented in stanza 3:
“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.’”
When viewed against the backdrop of the Civil War, this beautiful carol reflects the sentiment many may feel during the Christmas season this year. Some may question the prophet Isaiah’s title for the newborn child, “Prince of Peace.” Can it be that Jesus is the Divine Son of the Heavenly Father, the Messiah, the Prince of Peace amidst a world ravaged by devastating conflicts? Can it be? We might look around and ask, “Has the Prince of Peace failed?” or “Does he even exist?” We must answer hopefully and with resounding clarity, “No, he has not failed.”
If Jesus’ design in his first coming was to bring circumstantial peace on earth, he would have established his political kingdom, made Rome subservient and ruled the nations from an earthly throne. No, that is the peace he will bring at his second coming. The peace announced by the angels to the shepherds was of far greater importance. Jesus came to bring peace to those at war with God. While circumstantial peace cannot always be found, the Prince of Peace has indeed come.
The peace heralded at Christmas was hope that the Messiah would arbitrate peace between a holy God and sin-stricken humanity. The absence of peace displayed in circumstances, governments, civil wars, conflicts, and racial tensions is indicative of a greater war raging within the hearts of men. Our sinfulness mocks the very holiness of God. In our unrighteousness we antagonize the righteous ruler of the universe. Mankind is at war. Religions, philosophies, science, secularization, and self-actualization cannot offer peace. Only one can, and he is Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Stanza 4 continues hopefully:
“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 describes the truth of the resurrection and the sovereign rule of God. Jesus is not dead. He is alive. Peace was given to us by Jesus’ death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Jesus paid the penalty for our sin and became the way for mankind to be right with God, and with one another. Paul made this case in Ephesians 2:14, “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace.”
As Christians, we should celebrate the Christmas spirit of peace on earth. We should embrace brothers across racial barriers. We should long for, pray for, and work for peace in relational, political, and racial spheres. But we must ground our message of peace on the foundational message of reconciliation—the message of the cross. Jesus Christ is our hope of peace this tension-filled December. Indeed, he is our only hope of peace—period.
History of the hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” comes from: Morgan, Robert J. Come Let Us Adore Him: Stories Behind the Most Cherished Christmas Hymns. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2005.