Friday, December 7, 2018

Christmas Carol Contemplation: "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day"


The classic carol "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day" is an inspirational reminder to rely on God in the most troubling times, drawn directly from the experiences of author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. However, it is missing an explicit focus on Christ, who is the reason we celebrate in the first place. We cannot forget that the hope we have in God comes directly through Jesus, not through a general sense of goodwill.

Last week, I started a short series on a few of my favorite Christmas carols. For this second article, I have chosen to focus on “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” There is no need to take this one verse by verse, so don’t worry. It is not as long as the last entry.

The Primary Message

The story behind this song is pretty well known, or at least better known than the one behind “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” But I said I am covering my favorite carols, not the most obscure ones. So if you have heard this all before, skim down a little.

As it happens, the story is actually a big part of the reason that this is one of my favorites. The song is inspiring enough to begin with, with its message of God overcoming the evils of the world. But it is even more so when you know the circumstances in which the song was written. It was set to music in 1872 by John Baptiste Calkin, but he took the lyrics from a poem written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow penned this poem during a very trying time in his life. In 1861, his wife, Fanny, died after having been badly burned in an accident where her dress caught on fire. This loss was devastating enough, but it was compounded by the tragedy of civil war. The disunion in our nation weighed heavily on his mind, amplified by personal pain when his son, Charles, was badly injured at the battle of New Hope Church in late November 1863.

It was in this mood, with his wife gone and uncertain of whether his son would live or die, that Longfellow was struck by the ringing of bells on Christmas Day in 1863. The turmoil in his soul was the source of the tension in the poem and the carol. How could those bells call for celebration in the midst of such horror? Death was being experienced on an industrial scale while brother fought against brother. Were those joyous peals anything but a mockery in the face of such hate and destruction?

One could hardly fault Longfellow for coming to that conclusion if he had. He did not, however, because he realized what the sound that morning actually conveyed. The bell towers were singing a song of courage and of hope. It was the cry of the faithful expressing their belief that no matter what momentary victories evil enjoyed, good would win in the end. God would not allow the war to go on forever, and in His timing, He will bring an end to all suffering for those who follow Him. In spite of the loss and the fear he was experiencing, Longfellow was able to grasp this truth and find comfort in it, and it inspired the words we still sing today.

The Missing Message

That is the uplifting part, but now sadly I have to play the Grinch. There is something important missing from Longfellow’s poem, and from the resulting carol. Though there are a few allusions to it, there is no outright recognition of the birth and ministry of Jesus Christ. This song, ultimately, is more about the Christmas of 1863 than it is about the event the holiday commemorates. Interesting in its own way, and not necessarily a bad thing. But the omission comes into unfortunate focus when you realize the worldview that produced it.

You see, Longfellow was a Unitarian. Unitarians do not have a monolithic belief system, there are differences among the varying sects, but at least one of the things they hold in common is that they do not believe in the deity of Jesus. They believe He was a servant of God, a great moral model, and that He may have even existed before anything else, but that He was still created and is of lesser nature than God is. They also tend to deny that salvation comes exclusively through Christ, and they believe the Bible is not infallible or the only guide to God. These beliefs are why the Unitarians made common cause with the Universalists, and why the two are more often than not found together.

This group considers itself to be under the umbrella of Christianity, or at least cared to be considered Christian at one time. But quite clearly, it is not an orthodox expression of biblical faith. Anything that denies the nature of Jesus, and then explains it away by saying the Bible can be wrong, is not Christian. It does not offer salvation.

Now let me be clear on what I’m not saying. I am not saying we need to rip “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” out of our hymnals. It is still a beautiful song with a beautiful message. That message is more incomplete than wrong. We simply need to be careful to complete it.

That means remembering why there is “peace on earth, goodwill toward men” (Luke 2:14). It means remembering why those churches exist to have their bells ring out. Christmas is not some ideal or spirit of kindness between people. That’s just the sappy version secular culture is willing to accept. The truth is far greater. It was the moment in history when God came down in the flesh to live among His fallen creatures. It was the moment that started His trek to the cross where His blood was actually spilled to be the payment for all sin. It was the moment that promised He would exit the darkness of the grave just as He had exited the darkness of the womb, and bring with Him the light of eternal life.

Christmas, then, is not about hope in general. It is about hope in Christ. It is not about believing God will make everything right somehow someway, but about knowing that “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). It is specific, it is knowable, it is true. There is no mystery in God’s coming victory. It is already won in the Lord Jesus.

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is not incompatible with this. Longfellow may have missed the point, or he might have refused to acknowledge it, but that does not make his words a falsehood. They are still a tribute to the wonders of the season and a call to hope even in dark times. We just happen to benefit from knowing the name of that hope is Jesus Christ. We must never forget to make that clear beyond question.

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