Prov 17:22

A merry heart doeth good like a medicine... - Proverbs 17:22

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Their Old Familiar Carols Play

(The fourth in my Christmas Carols series.)
I’m going to assume you’ve heard of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and take you back to 1861. That was the year the poet lost his wife in a horrible fire. She was 44. The New York Times, on July 12, reported the following:

While seated at her library table, making seals for the entertainment of her two youngest children, a match or piece of lighted paper caught her dress, and she was in a moment enveloped in flames. Prof. Longfellow, who was in his study, ran to her assistance, and succeeded in extinguishing the flames, with considerable injury to himself, but too late for the rescue of her life… She leaves five children to mourn, with their father, their common loss.

Longfellow had already buried his first wife, Mary, after just four years of marriage when she was only 22. He was no stranger to loss.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

A year after the incident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

It’s not hard to understand why his journal entry for December 25, 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
The next Christmas, 1863, was silent in Longfellow’s journal. The American Civil War raged on.

On Christmas day, 1864, the beloved poet received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a bullet passing under his shoulder blades and taking off one of the spinal processes. 

Not knowing whether his son would live or die, Longfellow did the only thing a poet knows to do: poured out his heart on paper. As he sat alone with his grief, he penned words to challenge his own despair and called the composition Christmas Bells, little knowing how many people his work might eventually reach.

Eight years later, composer John Baptiste Calkin set Longfellow’s words to music and it became the somewhat mournful carol you and I know as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

If you have suffered loss and wounds, you know how Christmas and other holidays can heighten your pain. You can easily relate to Longfellow’s fourth stanza:

“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.’”
But somewhere in his outpouring of honest grief, hope came to Longfellow and he wrote words he chose to believe, despite all the evidence to the contrary:

“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.’”

Lt. Charles Longfellow did not die that Christmas, but lived. I can only surmise that his father’s prayers were heard and God did indeed give him peace.

Faith is choosing to believe things contrary to evidence. It defies explanation. But it remains the very basis for peace on earth, goodwill to men. If 2013 has been a year of pain and despair for you, it may mean the bells of faith will peal more loudly and deeply for you than ever before in 2014. 

Let’s pray for it.

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