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
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew the meaning of a goodbye. After experiencing great tragedy, the writer penned a poem that became one of the world’s most beloved carols. But the words came from a place of deep pain mixed with curiously deeper hope.
I thought how as the day had come / the belfries of all Christendom / had rolled along the unbroken song / of peace on earth, goodwill to men
During his lifetime, Longfellow lost not one but two wives to traumatic forms of death, and he also watched as his son was drafted into the bloodied turf of war. Saddened by a world that was destroying itself, due to the chaos of the Civil War, he questioned the little hope he sensed and he also questioned God’s presence. If any man had reason to be filled with grief, it was Longfellow.
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 hope you don’t mind if I share an excerpt from a favorite book because it’s a good one and, I believe, fitting. A Severe Mercy was written by Sheldon Vanauken, a man shaped by a unique friendship with C. S. Lewis during his college days at Oxford. In his account of dining with Lewis one last time before heading back to the States (with his wife Davy), Vanauken captured this:
“On that last day, I met C. S. Lewis at the Eastgate for lunch. We talked, I recall, about death or, rather, awakening after death. Whatever it would be, we thought, our response to it would be ‘Why of course! Of course it’s like this. How else could it have possibly been?’ We both chuckled at that. I said it would be a sort of coming home, and he agreed. Lewis said that he hoped Davy and I would be coming back to England soon, for we musn’t get out of touch. ‘At all events,’ he said with a cheerful grin, ‘we’ll certainly meet again, here — or there.’
Then it was time to go, and we drained our mugs. When we emerged on to the busy High with the traffic streaming past, we shook hands, and he said: ‘I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.’ Then he plunged into the traffic. I stood there watching him. When he reached the pavement on the other side, he turned round as though he knew somehow that I would still be standing there in front of the Eastgate. Then he raised his voice in a great roar that easily overcame the noise of the cars and buses. Heads turned and at least one car swerved. ‘Besides,’ he bellowed with a great grin, ‘Christians NEVER say goodbye!’
Both Vanauken and Lewis would soon know the intensity of a goodbye—a goodbye that would nearly destroy them, save that incredible severe mercy of Jesus Christ. They also knew that with an eternal perspective, no goodbye is final. But, in that moment, both felt that sharp tug of loss, as they cheerily waved to their friendship across the cab-filled street.
Till ringing, singing on its way / the earth revolved from night to day / a voice, a chime, a chant sublime / of peace on earth, goodwill to men
The bells of Longfellow’s poem ring true in this season of Advent. Our Christmas story is not devoid of this twinge of loss. Mary and Joseph lost their reputation. Jesus, the Son of God, lost his dignity before he lost his life. The Jewish people lost their expectation of what a Messiah ought to look like. Loss seeps throughout the whole of Christianity. Maybe we feel it strongest during this dark winter of waiting for what will be—this winter of living not only with the expectation of Christmas but the expectation of Jesus’ final return. The ultimate consummation of heaven and earth. Maybe goodbyes are hardest now because reunions will be so achingly beautiful then.
In Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas, the book describes the American poet: “… When he wrote, ‘Believe me, every man has his secret sorrows, which the world knows not; and oftentimes we call a man cold, when he is only sad,’ Longfellow was surely writing from his own experiences. He knew what it was like to be down and forlorn… In the original seven stanzas of ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day’ Longfellow focused on Christmas during the Civil War. In his lines, one can easily sense the writer’s views of slavery and secession; his words divide the war into an effort of God’s love and understanding against the devil’s hate and anger. It would have been a poem completely void of hope, a testament to the power of Satan, if Henry hadn’t finished his work with two verses that embraced the thought, ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill to men.’ This was a poem that would inspire not only the Union, but soon the whole world.”
Longfellow knew the meaning of a goodbye, and so did Jesus. So did Lewis and Vanaukan, and I’m guessing every single one of you. But, when we hear the bells resound, we—like C. S. Lewis—can wave across the rainy streets and smile with hope in a future glory.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep / God is not dead, nor doth he sleep / the wrong shall fail, the right prevail / of peace on earth, goodwill to men
This song always reminds me of the end to A Christmas Carol, when Ebeneezer Scrooge throws open his bedroom window and shouts for joy that he is not dead. He’s still alive, and Christmas morning has only just begun. Longfellow’s poem offers us the story of how our Savior is coming back, and until then we live with anticipation of this hope come to life.
Remember, Christians never say goodbye. This doesn’t lessen the sadness in losing a soul you love, but I find immeasurable hope in the fact that, for those who believe in Christ, there is no finality in a farewell.
Happy Christmas, all!
< Here are two really beautiful renditions of this classic carol. >
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