A couple weeks ago my attention was caught by Casting Crown's powerful version of "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day." If you haven't heard it, or seen the YouTube video, it's worth your time.
I have long been interested in the words of this song, but I never liked the the melody. This new version is beautiful and powerful, and it led me to learn more about how this song was written.
As I learned in Ace Collins excellent book, Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, the words were written by poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow back in 1863. At this time he was still mourning the tragic death of his wife a couple years earlier, and he was deeply discouraged by the ongoing Civil War, in which his son had been injured.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.
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 can feel the anguish in those words. And I can imagine how many people have had the same feelings in the years since they were written. There never has been peace on earth—at least among the human race—and I would argue that there never will be until Christ returns. The selfishness and sin and hate of man is too strong.
And peace is one of those things we all desire the most. How many people are in despair because their lives are in turmoil—a broken marriage, a rebellious child, an uncertain economy? How many are mourning the loss of loved ones as Longfellow was?
The song does not end in despair, for the bells of Christmas day reminded Longfellow that God is ultimately in control:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, not doth He sleep.
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men."
Those are powerful thoughts. And I think it’s good to remember that the peace God promises us is actually different many people think. When the angels declared to the shepherds, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased,” they were not speaking of peace between men as much as they were about peace between man and God. Jesus came so that this peace could be possible; there was no way for humans to earn peace with God through their own efforts.
When people experience this true peace with God—the peace that comes through the salvation He offers through Christ—they are able to build peace between themselves and others. This is the peace that softens our hard and stubborn hearts and heals our relationships.