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In 2020, There’s No Doubt: We Need the Hope of Christmas

12-23-2020
HopeChristmas

Christmas is the compass in a world of wanderers searching for hope.

One cold December day in 1863, when the country was reeling from the deep-seated divisions of the Civil War, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram: the son of the great 19th century poet had been severely injured by a gunshot wound that nicked his spine and nearly left him paralyzed.

It was in that sorrow — a despair with which only a parent could relate — that the widowed father penned the poem we now know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The composition, which has since been transformed into one of our most beloved Christmas carols, gave words to the dissonance Longfellow felt between the hallmarks of the holiday season and the desperation consuming his every moment.

Longfellow wrote:

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!

[…]

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.”

While Longfellow’s world was much different from the one in which we find ourselves today, the dissonance between the joys of Christmas and the hopelessness of 2020 offers a fresh perspective to his poignant words of old.

The heartbroken dad’s poem was penned from a place of sincere grief. As The Washington Post’s Linda Wheeler once recalled, Longfellow later told a friend he wrote the words after enduring “a great deal of trouble and anxiety” — feelings all too familiar to us this year.

Many of the draconian measures Americans have faced amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic have caused dangerous spikes in depression, anxiety, and even suicide. The first round of lockdowns saw a nearly 18% increase in drug overdose deaths and one-in-four young adults between the ages of 18 and 25 said they seriously considered suicide. And some in our elderly population are actually dying of loneliness.

Despite the myriad ways we’re divided right now, the world seems to be united in at least one way: we’re all feeling the pangs of despair. 

But Christmas is here, and it’s for the wanderers. 

The traditions of the Yuletide season — the music, the (perhaps virtual) get-togethers, the prayers of Advent, the gifts, the wonders of the Nativity — serve as signposts for the hope-seekers listening for “the bells on Christmas Day.”

I’ve heard it said more than once that, much like a diamond against a black backdrop, the redemption found only in Jesus, whose birth we’re celebrating this month, shines brightest in the moments it feels most needed.

While the church bells that Christmas Day some 160 years ago moved Longfellow to wrestle with his own sorrow, the holy sounds — “more loud and deep” — ultimately reminded him of the truth that remains unchanged, no matter the trials he faced: “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep. The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will toward men.”

The compass of Christmas, just as it did for Longfellow, points the hope-seekers to Jesus. At Christmastime, the local church — the body of believers doing good in a world punctuated by pain — should light the way toward hope.

Hal Donaldson, president and co-founder of the Christian humanitarian organization Convoy of Hope, recently told me he is convinced it’s local churches — thousands of faithful congregations in cities, towns, and suburbs all across the country — that will make all the difference in our world full of wanderers.

“The church,” Donaldson said, “is the most powerful force in the United States. It’s more powerful than the White House and the Capitol.” He went on to say, “I see a united act of compassion: the church working together as never before to meet both the physical and spiritual needs and to bring healing to our nation.”

Even in the trials this year has brought — and maybe especially because of them — the glory of Jesus and His radical love for us should bring us a sense of peace. No matter the difficulties we face, as believers, we should declare to a searching world: right will prevail, because “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”

So wanderers, this Christmas, I urge you to pause — if only for a moment — and listen to the bells.

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