On Christmas Day 1863, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, sitting before a table in Cambridge, Massachusetts, took up his pen and paper. His heart was filled with despair. A few years earlier, his wife of eighteen years had tragically died in an accidental fire, and he would never truly recover from her loss. His country was divided and waging war against itself. His son, who had joined the army against his father’s wishes, had been severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church. As Longfellow sat there on Christmas morning, nursing his son down the long road of recovery, he heard the church bells pealing. He struggled with their message of “peace on earth, good will towards men.” Taking up his pen, he put down on paper a poem. The first verse is familiar to those who know the hymn. Longfellow’s poem eventually came to be: “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.”
As I sit here in 2021, it’s surprisingly easy to relate to this man who lived in 1863. Longfellow was a conflicted individual. He lived in a time of conflict, yet yearned for peace, wishing that the promise of the bells rang true. How often we find ourselves joining the poet in this wish! For though our country is not technically at war with itself, we too live in a time of conflict. Personal struggles, politics, the varied responses to COVID, and a world that is rabidly embracing the secular have made the words of Longfellow incredibly relatable. He expressed our frustration as he wrote the third verse: “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.’”
“Where is the peace?” we wonder. Why is there so much conflict? Isn’t the promise of the bells real? Isn’t Jesus, the Christ child, the one we celebrate on Christmas morning? Isn’t he the heralded Prince of Peace? He has come! Why has peace not come with him?
As we, with Longfellow, wrestle with these questions, it is important for us to remember what Jesus himself said about his mission, his purpose here on earth. I am reminded of his shocking declaration in Matthew 10:34-36, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn ‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”
How could these words come from the mouth of the Prince of Peace?
As we try to make sense of these words of Jesus, it is important for us to understand what he means by “peace.” The peace the Messiah brings is much more than the absence of fighting. It was not Jesus’ intent and purpose to have everyone join hands and sing “Kumbaya.” Rather, he came to restore our relationship with God. This is true peace. Our world is broken by sin; its natural state is one of conflict. The only means to true peace, the peace that is promised by the ringing bells that echo the declaration of the angels in the night sky over Bethlehem, is through relationship with God. And in the bringing of this kind of peace, conflict is inevitable, for not all will accept it. As R.T. France put it: “Jesus did not come to poison family relationships, but rather he brings a division, regrettable, but inevitable, between those who respond to his mission, and those who reject it.”
Peace with the world is not our purpose. Peace with God is, and that peace can only be found through Jesus Christ. As I read through the verses in Matthew 10, I found myself incredibly thankful for one particular Son whose Father turned against him. The Bible tells us that God made Jesus to be sin for us while he hung on the cross. Jesus took all that separates us from God to that cursed tree, and there he felt the Father’s wrath against our sin, as he called out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And there, for our sin, he died. But three days later he rose from the grave, defeating sin and death. In this way, Jesus reconciled us to the Father. For through faith in Christ, we are clothed in Christ. So when God sees us, he does not see our sinful rags, but instead sees the righteous garments of Jesus.
This is the promise of the bells. And we are called to proclaim it, for we are Christ’s ambassadors, and God makes his appeal through us. Let us not feel so comfortable in the peace we have with God that we are unwilling to face conflict in the world in order to share the message of true peace with our neighbor.
Every Christmas morning at my church we sing “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and I never cease to get chills when we proclaim the fourth verse. As a Christian I do not have to imagine the peace Longfellow felt as he penned the words: “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.’”
Though our world is one of conflict, there is peace for the Christian. Our God does not lose. As Christians, we rest in the finished work of Christ on the cross, and we yearn for our neighbor to be reconciled to God, to know the peace in which we rest. So, let us be the bells in our communities, loudly pealing the message of a peace that divides.
Rev. Daniel Stenberg is Pastor of Calvary Lutheran Church in Bergenfield, New Jersey.