A Feast of Carols – Advent 2: Peace

Blind Faith (No. 48, 2016)
Weekly Devotional for December 1, 2016
A Feast of Carols – Advent 2: Peace

2016 FBC Advent Theme: A Feast of Carols
Second Sunday of Advent December 4, 2016: Peace

“Merry Christmas!” and “Joy to the World” do not express
everyone’s sentiments this time of year. Many people who have experienced
deep personal loss, or profound grief, or fractured relationships, or
intense physical or medical challenges, or the anguish of literal warfare
and associated destruction may be sore pressed to join the festivities
universally urged and expected. Many who bear such despair try to bury the
dark thoughts deep inside themselves, desperately trying to look and sound
at ease. On their insides, however, they are torn apart by conflicted
emotions, absence of joy or hope, and generally without peace in their
souls. Others who do not share their agony may unintentionally deepen it by
exhorting them to join in what the suffering souls find to be empty or
superficial pretenses of joy. (We who are blessed to know the genuine joy of
Christmas can do better at truly empathizing with people who bear inner
torments and so need a caring, gracious servant/companion.)

One of our most loved Christmas carols was born amid immense
personal and national unrest. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) wrote
the poem, “Christmas Bells,” on Christmas day, 1863. Events for several
years before had plunged Longfellow into such depths of despair that he
wrote numerous times in his journals that he feared that he was losing his
mind. His first wife had died during childbirth while the expectant couple
was travelling in Europe. A couple of years later Henry and his second wife,
Frances (“Fanny”) Appleton, married after she had refused his proposal
several times. In 1843 they settled down in the historic Craigie House
overlooking the Charles River in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They had six
children, five of them surviving to adulthood. Their first daughter, their
middle child, was born while Fanny was under anesthesia with ether, the
first such birth in North America. When daughter Emily was 7 years old, on a
sultry July afternoon in 1861 Fanny was trimming her heavy curly hair. Fanny
wanted a keepsake of her curls and was using a candle and sealing wax to
preserve a sample. An accident with the candle caused Fanny’s dress to catch
fire. She ran into the next room – her husband’s study – to keep the fire
from endangering her daughters. Henry tried to extinguish the flames with a
small throw rug, but it was not large enough to put out the fire. In a
desperate attempt to save his wife Henry hugged her close but still was
unable to smother the flames. Fanny died the next day from her injuries.
Henry was so seriously burned that he was not able to attend her funeral.
His heavy beard he wore the rest of his life resulted from his inability to
shave because of severe scarring from his facial burns. Although Longfellow
was a celebrated poet, he was almost inconsolable after losing his wife in
death. The first Christmas after Fanny’s death, Longfellow wrote, “How
inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the incident, he wrote, “I
can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence.
Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for
December 25, 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is
no more for me.”

Longfellow’s burden of grief grew. In a letter dated March 14,
1863 his oldest son, Charles Appleton Longfellow, informed his father that
he had joined the Army of the Potomac contrary to his father’s wishes.
Charles was appointed a Lieutenant. He was seriously injured in a battle in
Virginia in November 1863 when a gunshot entered below one shoulder blade
and exited his body under the other. The bullet chipped his spine, but did
not damage his spinal cord. His father was warned that Charles possibly
would be paralyzed by the injury, but with long, painful rehabilitation
Charles regained his health.

In the grips of his own sorrows and deep national turmoil of the
Civil War Longfellow heard church bells chiming joyous celebration of the
birth of the Prince of Peace on Christmas Day 1863. He was inspired to write
poetically of the paradoxical truth he knew on that day. As God’s prophet
had observed and people all around continue to prattle, “‘Peace! Peace!’
when there is no peace.” (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11 NKJV) Far more importantly,
the birth of Jesus fulfilled Isaiah’s faithful prophecy that “unto us a
child is born, unto us a son is given: and his name shall be called . The
Prince of Peace. {7} Of the increase of his government and peace there shall
be no end.” (Isaiah 9:6a-7 KJV) The full effect of Jesus’ birth is found
through his life and work of grace: “in Christ Jesus you who once were far
off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. {14} For he is our peace;
in his flesh he has . broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility
between us. {15b}thus making peace.” (Ephesians 2:13-14a, 15b NRSV) The
awesome reality of God’s love overcoming despair and hostility in Jesus’
birth heralded by the chiming bells resounds in Longfellow’s confident
expression of Christmas faith:

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!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
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.”
(“Christmas Bells,” Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 1863)

The poem was set to its most familiar tune in 1872 by British organist John
Baptiste Calkin. Johnny Marks, known for his song “Rudolph the Red-Nosed
Reindeer”, set Longfellow’s poem to music in 1956. Marks’ setting is sung by
The Carpenters in the video at:

(Please excuse the ad if one plays before the Carpenters sing.) I hope that
Karen Carpenter realized through her own torment with eating disorders and
personal trials that genuine peace is eternally available through the birth
of Jesus in one’s heart by faith.

“Peace on earth, good will to men,” the angels announced to a
troubled world at Jesus’ birth. What discontent plagues your heart and life
this Christmas? Think of God’s peace amid the storm as you hear the beloved
carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” this season. Trust the Prince of
Peace.

– J. Edward Culpepper

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