By Fr. Angelo Anthony, C.PP.S.
This Christmas season saw the release of a new movie that tells the story of how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came to write the poem, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which became a beloved Christmas carol.
In the long cold winter in 1863, the Civil War raged on and showed no sign of ending. Fathers, sons and brothers from Mississippi to the East Coast had not come home for Christmas and many would never return. Longfellow sat in Cambridge, Mass., trying to make sense of the brokenness found in his life and the world around him.
Just two years earlier, his wife was killed in a tragic fire. Now, his son Charles was seriously wounded in the December 1 Battle of New Hope Church. Still grieving his wife’s death, Longfellow sat nursing his son on his long road to recovery. Overwhelmed with loss, Longfellow was startled by the bells ringing for services on Christmas day. Thinking about the message of angels proclaiming peace on earth, good will toward all, his depression gave way to hope, and he took up his pen and wrote the poem that later became lyrics.
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 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 does He sleep,
For Christ is here; His Spirit near
Brings peace on earth, good will to men.”
When men repent and turn from sin
The Prince of Peace then enters in,
And grace imparts within their hearts
His peace on earth, good will to men.
O souls amid earth’s busy strife,
The Word of God is light and life;
Oh, hear His voice, make Him your choice,
Hail peace on earth, good will to men.
Fast forward to 2022, we continue to have many challenges facing our world, our country and our families. And yet, the miracle of Christmas is that you cannot silence God’s Word. God’s love for us is a gift and sometimes we need the strong peal of a bell to wake us up to the fact that “God is not dead, nor does God sleep.”
This Christmas, consider the times when you heard the bell of God’s love ringing loud and clear, like in the birth of a child, healing from an illness, an anniversary celebration, the making of a new friend, the completion of a project, an invitation for reconciliation, the beauty of nature, an answered prayer.
Our celebration of Christmas invites us to touch once again the mystery of God’s love for us found deep in our heart, like a forgotten memory. We dream with the prophets of old and share stories from our youth when all seemed right with the world.
The ringing of God’s love is heard clearly as we receive the body and blood of Jesus. Like the shepherds on that first Christmas day, we encounter Jesus. He gives himself to us as real food, reaffirming our dignity as adopted children of God, his Precious Blood reminding us that God’s love is stronger than sin and death.
Longfellow recognized that though our world is broken, he didn’t stop living. Through the Precious Blood of Jesus, we too are strengthened in the hope that God is working all things to the good no matter how dark or chaotic or confusing life may be. There is no doubt that we need a savior. The birth of Jesus at Christmas makes known to us a love that is eternal. Jesus is with us in our darkest hour leading us to light and peace. Let this message ring loud and clear through you this Christmas day!
Fr. Angelo Anthony, C.PP.S., is the pastor of the Downtown Dayton parishes, which include Emmanuel, Holy Trinity and St. Joseph. He also serves as the vice moderator general of the worldwide Congregation.