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I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Posted by on December 18, 2011

I wrote this piece as a dramatic monologue and performed it at my church during the 2008 Christmas season. This morning at Vaughn Forest Church, my brother performed the Casting Crowns version of the song.

My original purpose was to define for the audience the tragic background behind the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” with lyrics written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow wrote these lines after suffering two huge personal tragedies, and the poem tells of his grief, his despair, and yet his return to faith that there is indeed peace on earth and goodwill to men. I am posting a link to a video of the band Casting Crowns performing their version of the song.

Longfellow: Life seems to be full of defining moments, doesn’t it? I mean, each day is full of moments… but there are some that are such life altering events that we define the rest of ours lives by them.

For example, there is marriage. In this one sacred act, this entering of a covenant between man and woman…. life forever changes. I remember my wedding day. My beautiful Frances entered the church… and I stood at the front, halfway expecting her to turn and run. Instead, she walked down that aisle with her face shining like an angel.

Then there is parenthood. A friend of mine once told me, “You know, Henry, becoming a parent is like having your heart walk around outside of your chest for the rest of your life.” He was right. Frances and I were blessed with five children… I never knew my heart’s capacity for love. With each child, I thought, “How can I have more to give?” Then I realized my love was multiplied, not divided.

But some of life’s defining moments… well they aren’t quite so bright are they? You know what I am talking about… you have been there. You have experienced not only the joys of life, but the sorrows.

Christmas has been hard for me the last couple of years. You see, three years ago, I went through one of the darkest days of my life. My beautiful Frances had just trimmed some of Edith’s… she was only seven then… anyway, she had trimmed some of Edith’s curls. She couldn’t bear to part with them, and was going to save some in some sealing wax. She was melting the bar of wax with a candle when a breeze blew in through an open window and blew some of the wax onto Frances’ dress…. which immediately burst into flames.

She tried to protect the children… and went running from that room into my study. I looked up and saw her… I had nothing to put out the flames… I grabbed the rug off the floor… but it was too small. I didn’t know what to do…. so I wrapped my arms around her and tried to smother the flames…. but it wasn’t enough.

My Frances… my beautiful Frances… my wife… my soulmate… died the next day. I told people it was my injuries… my burnt hands… arms… and face… that kept me from the funeral. But I couldn’t deal with the reality… my Frances was gone.

Every day since then has been hard, but the holidays are the hardest.

As time passed, my heart hurt less. My children need me… the first year was the toughest. The second year wasn’t as bad…

But then, last year, right before Christmas, I got word that Charles, our oldest son had been shot. He enlisted when he was just seventeen to fight in the Civil War… he felt like it was his duty…

And, as if Christmas wasn’t already hard enough… Charles has to go and get himself shot. The bullet went right under his shoulder blade and actually clipped one of his vertebrae. For a while, we didn’t know if he would live…. then we weren’t sure how his injuries would affect him… He is doing much better now, but needless to say, last Christmas was rough.

So, last week… I heard the church bells beginning to ring. They began to play out Christmas carols…. “Peace on Earth…. Good will to men.” I just about lost it… I couldn’t contain myself….

Peace on earth? Good will to men? How? All I could think of is all of the darkness… the hatred…. the pain….

I found myself shaking my fist up at the sky… like an angry little boy in grown ups’ clothes…. questioning God, questioning my Maker…..

And the bells kept ringing… louder and louder…. and God spoke to me through those bells.

I could almost hear His voice… “Peace on Earth… Henry, I have promised you peace… but peace is more than a fleeting emotion, my son. Peace is knowing that I, the Creator of the Universe… know your name and feel your pain.

Henry, don’t you know that I love Frances more than you do? Henry…. you were willing to die for her… I DID die for her….

I know it hurts when you see your son hurting… but Henry, don’t you think I know what that is like?

Do you think I am dead? Do you think I am asleep?”

He reminded me that day that He has shown goodwill to men… and that those things that I see that sadden my heart, it is not God’s inhumanity to man… it is our own inhumanity to one another.

So, this morning… as I come to this place… I come to remind you that we are to be instruments of His goodwill…. we are to be instruments of His peace. As we spend our days with hurting people, we need to be instruments of His goodwill and His peace… As you go to school… as you spend time with your families…. as you go to work…. as you look for work… take His peace with you….

One Response to I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

  1. Flavia Harrell

    Thank you so much for this. In worship for several weeks now, I have been hearing the words, “Ramblings of a Sojourner”. Thinking the Lord may be calling me to begin blogging, I thought I should check to see if there were others blogging under this name. Lo and behold, there certainly were, you being one. This Christmas had been especially hard for me, losses and sorrow woven into a glorious place of His presence, beauty and love. Best of times, worst of times. I was unaware of Longfellow having written this song. The story and song blessed mightily. Amazing how Jesus is able to reach down through the ages, through a brother I have never met, through this strange new means of communication, to visit with me and touch my heart. Forever. Telling me yet again, I am not alone.

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