The following is a never-published column I wrote in 2007. I’m posting it here this Christmas season because most of the content is as relevant today as it was back then.
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.
It was Christmastime. The war had dragged on much longer than anyone had ever expected. Anger and bitterness divided the country. A Republican sat in the White House, and many there were who despised him because of the war. The Civil War, that is.
Times were tough in 1863 when Longfellow wrote “Christmas Bells,” the poem that became the well-loved Christmas carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” In addition to a war that threatened to destroy the country, Longfellow had endured personal tragedies, including the loss of his beloved wife to fire. The world looked bleak, and Longfellow expressed his pessimism in the poem’s sixth stanza:
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.”
The times we live in are no less tough than Longfellow’s were. Hatred is still strong, and, like the poor, it’s always with us. Peace on earth seems like nothing more than a Utopian dream. Things were no better 2000 years ago. The Pax Romana had brought a measure of peace to much of the world. But violence and cruelty still ruled the day, and man’s depravity darkened every corner of the empire.
Then a baby boy was born in Bethlehem of Judea, the city of David. In obedience to the angel who had announced his coming, his parents called his name Jesus because he would “save His people from their sins.” Another angel brought the good news of his birth to a group of shepherds guarding their flocks in the Judean fields. A multitude of angels quickly joined the messenger. “Glory to God in the highest,” they proclaimed, “and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Jesus’ coming certainly “upset the world,” to echo a charge some Thessalonican Jews once leveled against his followers. His life made such an impact, in fact, that, until recently anyway, years were designated by either B.C. or A.D. to signify when they occurred in relation to Jesus’ birth or death.
But where is the peace? The good will toward men? The two seem conspicuously absent from the world in which we live. Wars continue to rage in one part of the globe or another. Men and women kill, cheat, and steal to satisfy their own desires. Parents abuse their children. Children abuse their elderly parents.
A brief glimpse at a daily newspaper or an Internet news site is more than enough to make us, like Longfellow, hang our heads in despair. As we watch human conflict grow worse every day, the two-thousand-year-old promise rings hollow in our ears.
But the angels didn’t promise peace between men and nations. And Jesus wasn’t born for that purpose. He told his disciples he’d been sent to bring not peace, “but a sword,” and that his coming would “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother . . .” As he well knew, the claims he made about himself would be so divisive they’d pit even close family members against each other. That doesn’t sound much like the popular concept of Jesus as a gentle peacemaker preaching a message of tolerance.
If Jesus’ birth, then, didn’t herald world peace, what sort of peace had the angels proclaimed? Peace between God and humankind. The ultimate peace. The root of our enmity with each other is our estrangement from God. Until we reconcile with him, we have no hope of living at peace with our fellow human beings. Jesus’ birth, his sacrificial death, and his subsequent resurrection made that reconciliation possible.
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!”