General CBF

I Heard the Bells on Christmas day

This Advent devotional comes from “And on earth, peace”, the 2016 Advent Devotional Guide of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. 

By Laurie Diffee

Most everyone has heard the name of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, but many are not aware of the tragedy which struck his family.

On July 9, 1861, Longfellow’s wife, Fanny was near an open window sealing locks of her daughter’s hair in a packet, using hot sealing wax. Suddenly, her dress caught fire and she immediately became engulfed in flames. Longfellow was asleep in another room but was awakened by her screams. He desperately fought to put out the fire and save his wife. During the struggle, he was severely burned on his face and hands.

Fanny slipped into a coma the next day and died from her burns. Longfellow’s own burns were so sever that he was unable to attend her funeral. He internalized his sorrow deep within his soul. And though he continued to work, only his family knew of his personal suffering. His white beard, so identified with him, was one of the results of the tragedy—the burn scars on his face made shaving almost impossible.

Even three years after the accident, Longfellow still sought God’s peace and comfort. On that Christmas day, he sat down to try and capture, if at all possible, the joys of the season. He began:

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. 

As he continued, he paused to consider the condition of his beloved America. The Civil War was in full-swing, the Battle of Gettysburg was not long past, days looked ominous, and he probably asked himself the question, “How can I write about ‘peace on earth, good will to men’ in this war-torn country, where brother fights against brother and father against son?” But he kept writing.

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!’

Doesn’t it seem as though he was writing for our time? He was able to turn his mind and thoughts to the one who solves all problems, the one who can give true and perfect peace. He continued writing.

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. 

This is the story behind the beautiful Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. John Baptiste Calkin wrote the musical setting that has helped make the carol a favorite.

May we find the peace that Longfellow wrote about—true peace with God, for that is one of God’s greatest gifts to us.

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