I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Matthew 4:15-17

Although I haven't done so this year, I like running at night during December. Darkened streets are lit up by Christmas lights on houses and in yards. Even though there are no more people out on the road, the lights make me feel less alone. The interesting the side effect is that the houses without lights seem barely visible. It's like they have been swallowed by a black hole. That's the interesting interplay between light and dark. The darkness makes the light shine more brightly. The presence of light makes the areas where there is darkness seem all the more dark.

I think the darkness at Advent is more pronounced because we spend so much time focusing on light, hope, peace, and joy. When evil does rear its ugly head, it seems exponentially more evil. When people are killed, when hatred and prejudice spreads around us, when children go hungry it wounds us even more during this time of year. Whatever form it takes, the darkness can unnerve us. It can cause us to give up hope.

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, goodwill to men

"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is based on a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The poet had been shaken by the darkness he witnessed during the American Civil War. His oldest son had been severely wounded in battle. Even away from the battlefield darkness seemed to creep into Longfellow's life: around this same time, his wife died in an accident.

The fact that his loss was so personal makes his despair resonate all the more. During the light of Christmas, Longfellow's life was engulfed in darkness. It would be quite easy for him to hear the songs of light and bitterly laugh at how their fantasy mocked their reality. Yet somehow, some way, the poet mustered this final verse:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead nor does He sleep
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, goodwill to men

In Advent and every season, may those bravely defiant words of hope be ours when the darkness seems to surround us.

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