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A Carol for the Despairing

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, later set to music. It was written over the Christmas of either 1863 or 1864, in the middle of the bloodiest war in American history.

The carol’s first verse is familiar and peaceful:

I heard the bells on Christmas day

Their old familiar carols play;

In music sweet the tones repeat,

“There’s peace on earth, good will to men.”

But the carol is not cotton candy; it is a beating heart, laid bare. It’s a carol that still rings true today. By the third stanza we sing:

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!”

Longfellow wrote to his friend Henry Ingersoll Bowditch in 1866, “The death of the young men in the war . . . makes my heart bleed whenever I think of it. How much I have felt for you. Particularly on that cold December night when I came back with my son, and saw you at the station and knew that yours would come back to you no more.”

This is the landscape in which Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells.” We aren’t currently entrenched in a literal civil war, but the cracks in our country’s foundation are splitting wider. People with power abuse it; people without it suffer. Day after day, the news cycles through horrors. Many days, it feels a little bit like the end of the world—like an apocalypse.

But then Longfellow brings the gospel to bear in the final triumphant stanza:

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.’”

Possible Preaching Angle:

God is bringing his kingdom to us. The last thing we see in the Bible is an image of “a new heaven and a new earth,” with “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:1, 4). The world is always ending, but one day, it will end. Justice is never done, but one day, it will roll down like a river.


Adapted from Kristen O’Neal, “A Carol for the Despairing,” CT magazine (January, 2019), pp. 51-53

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