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Do You Hear the Bells?

It was 1859 and Charles Dickens starts his classic A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair …. “ When I read this passage it makes me wonder, was he referring to life in 1859 or looking forward in the future to December 2017?

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The holiday season started out with all the normal craziness—Black Friday turning into a two-day event and people fighting over televisions. But then December 14 happened and things changed. With the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut so fresh, many are wondering about Christmas. Where, among all this, is our peace on earth and goodwill toward man? This feels like Dickens’ season of darkness, our winter of despair.

Recently, I heard the story of one of America’s most beloved poets, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. In 1861, his wife Fanny was fatally burned in an accident, but only after Longfellow attempted to save her and was severely burned himself. Too ill from his burns and grief, Henry did not attend her funeral.

The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year later in 1862 he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” His journal entry that year reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded. The Christmas of 1863 was blank in Longfellow’s journal.

But then on Christmas Day in 1864 Longfellow wrote the poem what would become the lyrics to “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

“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!

In the fifth stanza, Longfellow expresses with such honesty the pain in his heart:

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 joy returns in the sixth and final stanza as Longfellow’s hope in the future and faith in God are renewed:

Then peeled 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!”

And suddenly it’s Christmas. It’s here! The day for which we wait with breathless excitement, for the joy it stirs in our hearts.

Over the centuries bells have become a metaphor for hope, redemption and peace on earth. I hear them now, and with their ringing I feel the stress melt away. The noise quiets, fears vanish. All is calm.

Christmas … God’s annual reminder … luring us, pulling us, encouraging us that despite everything that may appear to the contrary, because of the Gift, it is the best of times. For those with eyes to see, it is the age of wisdom, the season of Light―the spring of hope.

And bells. Those Christmas bells!

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  1. Joanne says:

    This carol has long been one of my favorites, but I did not know the background. Thank you for sharing it — the meaning of the words has increased ten-fold!! I have been reminded more than once this Christmas season that God does not give us more than we can endure, that He does not reveal His entire plan for our lives, but as with Mary, He simply tells us to trust Him and not be afraid. He has given us His son Immanuel: God with us!! What more do I need?

  2. Hergy says:

    Thank you, Mary, for this beautifully written reminder of the true meaning of Christmas. Our family has celebrated the birthday of our Savior. I wish you a well deserved rest now at the Christmas season, and a blessed new year!

  3. Ernestine Summer Bonicelli says:

    Beautiful story! Thank you Mary. It is the topping to a wonderful Christmas season. God is so good and I love to hear of people discovering, or rediscovering that!!!!!

  4. oleredhead says:

    The fact that Jesus, the one in whose footsteps I try to follow, was born. Once we cut through all the hype, it is his Day! Gloria Hallelujah!

  5. Lisa Downing says:

    Beautiful essay, Mary! I am most thankful for Jesus’ birth, the New Testament beginning of our unearned salvation. Next, for my husband who is my rock, and our grown children who still enjoy spending time with us. We are in our late 60s and remain reasonably healthy, a wonderful thing. My list could go on, but….

    Happy New Year,
    LisaD in upstate NY

  6. Nevadagrandma says:

    As I watched my husband attempt to open his Christmas presents from his children, I saw in his eyes that he was bewildered. He read and re-read the tags on the packages. TO DAD, LOVE DON AND SHERI. Finally, he opened them and was delighted with the contents. Tomorrow he may not recall the gifts or who sent them, but for a brief moment, I think he knew it was CHRISTMAS! For those dealing with memory loss, dementia… it is such a time of sorrow. BUT, for a few moments to see a loved ones eyes open and realize that YES, today is Christmas! So priceless!

  7. Ginny says:

    The introduction to Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is the best known intro in all of literature. I used to puzzle over it, but not so much now. Sometimes when everything in our life is going so wonderfully, someone else’s world has fallen apart.

    Christmas, to me, is the gift that was given which turned into salvation for all who would receive it.

    Beautiful essay, Mary. I am going to forward it to a friend who lost her son in July, and this is her first Christmas without him in 27 years.

  8. patimac says:

    Beautiful Mary…love the way you wove the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” into what’s happening in our society today – and that we can still have a “spring of hope.” Thank you. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  9. Glen says:

    Christmas reminds me that God is with us. With our eyes firmly fixed on him, we can endure what ever comes our way. Thank you Lord for you Son Jesus.

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