Lessons and Carols: An Antiphon to Evil
On April 12, 1861 the Confederate army bombarded the Union-held Fort Sumter. As the artillery cast bursting lights across the sky, Northern support of the war against the South began to crystallize. Soon, brother would take up arms against brother.
The fledgling United States was torn asunder by this bloody conflict. Death tolls reached an estimated 620,000 soldiers. As the cannons boomed throughout the many nights of the Civil War, they echoed a song of death, suffering, and exacting cost. On a cold winter night 2000 years ago, however, a different song was struck.
Christmas is a season of hope, joy, and harmony between peoples. On the night when Emmanuel was born, angels filled the heavens with their song. “Glory to God in the highest,” they rejoiced, “and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV). This holiest of days marks a season of justice and mercy.
In striking contrast to the light of Christmas, our world is scarred by violence, greed, and selfishness. The oppressors seem to grow ever more powerful while the oppressed are shackled with tighter chains.
We live in a culture of death, oppression, and injustice. The shout of the oppressor and the cry of the oppressed appear to drown out the angels’ joyous song. Taken together, they resemble a tumultuous cacophony, a discordant harmony fighting a facile melody.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”, written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1863, captures the tension between life as it is now and what it could be, the longing for justice amid unjust circumstances. The poet penned the lyrics to this carol against the backdrop of national and personal trial. In his life, these two situations tragically mingled.
Personal tragedy. In 1861, Longfellow lost his dearly loved wife Fannie when her dress suddenly caught on fire. Unfortunately, the poet was unable to smother the flames in time. As Longfellow tried desperately to save his spouse, his own face was badly burned. His injuries were so dire that he could not attend his wife’s funeral.
National strife. Around the same time as his wife’s sudden death, the Civil War sparked. Decades of bitterness over the issues of slavery and states’ rights mutated into open hostility.
Deep grief. As the War Between the States raged cold and unending, Longfellow’s oldest son Charles Appleton Longfellow, affectionately known as Charley, enlisted as an officer in the Union army. On November 27, 1863, during a skirmish in the Mine Run Campaign, Charley was severely wounded. A bullet penetrated his left shoulder, skimmed his spine, and exited through his right shoulder. Though he avoided paralysis by mere inches, he was subjected to a long and arduous recovery. News of this event found Charley’s father on December 1.
The drowning of the bells. As Longfellow grieved over the injury inflicted upon his eldest son, he reflected on the seeming disparity between suffering and justice. He yearned for a world where all was made right, yet his own environs barraged him with loss and tribulation. Like Job, he turned desperate eyes to heaven, hoping for clarity.
After 25 days of pleading and wrestling, Longfellow was struck by the bells tolling in celebration of Christmas Day. This holiday, he thought, heralds the dawn of justice and mercy, yet the world is still hampered by profound brokenness. “I heard the bells on Christmas Day their old familiar carols play,” ruminates the poet, “of peace on earth, good-will to men!” Yet, he continues, “then from each black, accursed mouth/the cannon thundered in the South/and with the sound/the carols drowned.”
Like the nation he loved, Longfellow was torn by two incongruent truths: God is just, but the world is not. As he heard the bells tolling on Christmas morning 1863, he was thunderstruck by a realization: what if the songs of suffering and Christmas aren’t a cacophony, but rather an antiphon, a call and response? What if the pleading cry of suffering is the call and the angelic song of Christmas is the response?
As this thought sank in, Longfellow wrote, “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.’”
Though Christmas is the hope of peace and the promise of justice, its message is seemingly heard only once a year. One day, however, this holy day will dawn and never end. The song of suffering will grow silent and the angelic response will echo for all eternity: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”