But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.
– Isaiah 53:4–5 –
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!
And 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!
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!
These are the opening words to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow famous Christmas song, “I Heard the Bells on Xmas Day.” You’ve probably heard it, but if not I’d recommend the version by Caroline Cobb + Sean Carter. At the same time, you may not know the story behind the song, but it’s worth the telling.
In the Civil War, Longfellow’s oldest son, Charley, had left home to fight for the Union, and in the late fall of 1863, he had been severely wounded in battle. First, Charley convalesced at New Hope Church in Orange County and later came to Washington D. C., where his father came to find him in the cold month of December.
It should be noted that by 1863, Longfellow was two-years a widow, and the lone parent of six children—the oldest, who had nearly escaped paralysis when a bullet nicked his spine.
This is the backdrop to the song, written when Longfellow returned to Harvard home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Justin Taylor tells the rest.
On Friday, December 25, 1863, Longfellow—as a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him that Christmas Day.
He heard the Christmas bells ringing in Cambridge and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook.
The theme of listening recurs throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair as he recounts to himself that God is alive and righteousness shall prevail.
With this hope in view, Longfellow finished his poem with these two stanzas.
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.”
Finding Peace on Earth Today
The story of Longfellow’s haunting and yet hopeful Christmas poem is a good reminder that Christmas does not automatically make men good or earth peaceful. Rather, any Christmas celebrated against the background of war, any Christmas that has a missing place at the table, or any Christmas broken by sin, strife, or sorrow—indeed, every Christmas that is not scripted for the television by Hallmark—is a Christmas celebrated amidst the hardships of a fallen world.
As Longfellow’s story reminds us, the promise of peace must do battle with the hard realities of sin and death. And when we are honest about the darkness that surrounds Christmas, even the darkness that lies within us, we come to see why Jesus alone can be called Prince of Peace. Moreover, we come to appreciate the fact that his peace is not the afterglow of a well-set meal, but the peace that atones for sin and restores broken relationships (Eph. 2:14–17).
Truly, this is why Jesus Christ came. To a world awash with wickedness, there can be no peace (Isaiah 48:22). Yet, God in his mercy sent his Son into the world to make peace by offering his body as a sacrifice for sin. That is what Isaiah 53:5 says, and what we celebrate at Christmas.
Indeed, “Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men” is not a platitude rolled out each December to make humanity a little kinder. No, God’s announcement of gospel peace is an other-worldly promise that the sons of Adam who continue to quarrel and kill have been given a pathway to peace, through the sacrifice of the Suffering Servant, who is the Prince of Peace. This is what Isaiah proclaims, and it is the message of Christmas that we should long to hear.
To that end, I preached a sermon from Isaiah 49–54, which addresses this great theme of peace. You can listen to that sermon here. And you can find an outline to Isaiah 49–54 here. For the rest of the month, to help you celebrate the birth of our Lord, you can also find an array of rich devotionals at Christ Over All. Indeed, to combat the hard realities of sin in our world, we need strong devotional theology. And I pray you might find just that in this sermon and these essays.
Truly, as you celebrate Christmas this year, may the Lord bless you with a peace that surpasses our understanding, and a peace that brings you near to the God of Peace, by means of the Prince of Peace.
Soli Deo Gloria and Merry Christmas, ds
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