As we journey through various Christmas songs over the next month, my heart aches for many friends who are celebrating this season with glaring losses and emptiness in their lives. Broken homes wrecked by divorce, abuse, homelessness, poverty, war, and the like. For some, loved ones who have recently been taken from them.
Sometimes it’s the deepest sorrows that allow us to communicate the heartbeat of our truest longings.
This is Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s story.
Known more for his works, Paul Revere’s Ride or The Song of Hiawatha, Longfellow was one of the famed “Fireside Poets.” Yet come this time of year, there is one work of this poet that makes it into our homes and to our hearts and perhaps that is we ache as he did.
A couple years before, his wife of nearly eighteen years, Fanny, had a few drops of hot wax fall unnoticed on her dress. Moments later, a gust of wind through an open window, ignited the light material of her dress wrapping her in flames. Henry suffered extensive burns trying to put it out, but it was to no avail. Fanny died the next morning leaving Longfellow with five children who had no mother. He was too ill to even attend her funeral and for the rest of his life, he sported a beard to hide his burn wounds.
Christmas time became understandably painful. The year of her death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” The following year, he continued in agony writing, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” In 1862, his journal read “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”
The following year, his oldest son Charles who was a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac suffered a severe spinal injury caused by a bullet passing under his shoulder blades. That Christmas, Longfellow’s journal was silent.
But then. Christmas day, 1864. The United States was still in the throes of the horrors of the American Civil War where brother was killing brother. Death, racism, and hatred were available in plenty. In Longfellow’s home, there was still a glaring emptiness. And then it happened. He picked up his pen.
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!
Though seven verses were written, his conclusion (final two verses) conveys the heartbeat of this season.
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!”
My friends, as you go into this holiday of celebrating Christ’s birth, remember this. Tragedy, separation, and death are not the last chapter for the one whose faith is in Jesus Christ. The angels in Bethlehem’s sky didn’t announce a salve for our wounds but a Savior from our sins. (Luke 2:11) Jesus didn’t come to help you make it through life. He came to give life eternal. That is why Isaiah’s words still ring true today. “For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called, Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6)
Wrong might seem to be prevailing and right failing, but rest assured. Christmas reminds us that this is not the last chapter. The One who came as a baby in Bethlehem will come again. So let the bells ring!