Friday, December 14, 2012

Songs of the Season: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

It is still 11 days from Christmas, yet I am drawn to this song on a day filled with unspeakable horror as a man entered a school in Newtown, CT and gunned down more than 2 dozen children, teachers, and administrators. Suddenly, the joy of the season is filled with the weight of grief as the entire nation mourns with the families of Newtown.

While at first glance it would seem as if Christmas is reserved for joy and laughter (after all, we always precede a Christmas greeting with "Merry" and LOL becomes Ho Ho Ho) and have little to offer us as we sit at our desks and TVs weeping this day, it is time for us to tell the whole story of Christmas, the one that is often skipped over. We all love the stories of wise men and shepherds, of the baby Jesus away in a manger on a silent night, holy night. We keep singing louder and louder as if to convince ourselves, of "tidings of comfort and joy." But there is a part of the story that is neither comfortable nor joyous.

It is the slaughter of the innocents.

When Herod hears the murmurs of the people, talking about the birth of the "King of the Jews", he dispatches 3 wise men to find out where this newborn king is, and then get back to him with the news.  We all know about the 3 kings, bearing gifts, having traveled they are in awe of this babe, lying in a manger.

They aren't called wise men for nothing. They know that Herod fears an early coup in the making and wants to know the baby's whereabouts so he can kill him and reserve his status and power.  The wise men decide to take a route home that will allow them to avoid Herod.

Joseph has a dream that warns him of the danger facing his child. Under the cloak of night, Joseph and his family run from Bethlehem into Egypt. So not only was Jesus born homeless, but he also becomes a refugee. The family remain in Egypt for several years until Herod's death.

Herod isn't aware of the Holy Family's escape and, upon learning that the wise men have not kept their promise to return to him with information as to Jesus' whereabouts, orders every male child under the age of 2 to be killed. The Gospel of Matthew uses a passage from the prophet Jeremiah to describe the pain of those whose young sons were murdered:

"A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."

Tonight, there is weeping and great mourning in Newtown, mothers and fathers weeping for children who are no more.

Tonight, we all are grief-stricken at the loss of innocents, those who, as President Obama said today,
"had their entire lives ahead of them -- birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own." We mourn the deaths of those who taught and nurtured these children. We join our tears with those in Newtown.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the song, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. Written in 1864, it reflects both societal and personal grief that Longfellow was facing. With a nation gripped by the Civil War, Longfellow knew intimately the grief we are experiencing today, as parents wept for lost sons in the war. He lost his wife in 1861 as the result of a fire in which he was badly scarred himself, having failed at extinguishing the flames that had engulfed her. He was so despondent that a year later he wrote: "I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace." As Christmas 1862 approached he wrote: “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” 

Against Longfellow's wishes, his son Charles enlisted to fight in the war, and was severely wounded and returned home to recover. As 1864 drew to a close, Lincoln was re-elected and it looked like the war might soon be over, Longfellow wrote a poem "Christmas Bells", which became the words to the song.

Unlike many Christmas songs, this one does not shy away from acknowledging that humans do awful things to each other, that we experience much pain and suffering. There is death, weeping and tears. Yet, God does not leave us desolate. The God who came in the form of a baby continues to come into our world to set things right. 

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 the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will 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, good will to men."

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."

Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Karen. We are overcome with grief and sadness in the wake of this tragedy.
    Joe & Debbie