We doubt anyone will argue if we declare 2020 a year of deep human suffering and upheaval. In this pandemic election year, everyone is facing down death, separation from family and loved ones, and destabilizing political divisions. In our 36 and 39 respective years, we certainly haven’t seen anything like it. But an American poet named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could definitely relate. When he wrote the poem Christmas Bells on Christmas Day 1863, he was watching his countrymen tear each other apart. He had recently lost his wife in a fire and then watched his son join the Union Army over his objection. Just four weeks earlier, his son had been severely wounded in battle and it was unclear whether his son would live or die.

That poem became the Christmas carol we know as I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. You can find the full poem here and a Casting Crowns version here (or below). The version included in The Baptist Hymnal omits two stanzas traditionally considered to be specific to the Civil War:

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

That second stanza feels pretty relatable in a way it didn’t in 2019, doesn’t it? This is our Christmas carol for 2020 because we love Longfellow’s brutal honesty. He isn’t afraid to acknowledge a personal and collective despair and sit with it. Yet he ultimately refuses to yield to hopelessness, even when he isn’t feeling hopeful. Despite being wrecked to the core, he’s holding on to the hope of a message carried by angels to shepherds 2000 years ago.

This Advent season, our prayer is that God’s promise of peace on earth would bring you hope in the midst of this challenging year. Take heart: the bells are still ringing.

by the Wheelers