In 1872, John Baptiste Calkin put to music a poem penned by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow on Christmas Day 1864 but not before deleting two stanzas most reflecting Longfellow’s deep despair. Personal tragedies and the Civil War had invaded Longfellow’s household prior to that Christmas Day.
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!
The hymn we know as “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” came about from a time of depleted of joy during the season of Christmas, not just for one year but for several.
In the same way, our Christmas celebrations are most likely being subdued. Perhaps not to the degree of Mr. Longfellow’s despair, yet we too are finding our Christmas spirit a bit more forlorn by what we have and are still going through. We’re tired and our spirit is heavy. COVID has introduced two if not three generations of individuals and families to a degree of sacrifice, suffering and loss they have never before experienced. I find myself more pensive than usual for this time of year, thinking a lot about the conflict of the words Christmas and COVID in the same sentence.
Save for an intervention from God, we all face the potential of letting go of much of how our Christmases were celebrated in the past. The Lord has skewed my reflection toward the sacrifices of Christmas. There was (and still is) that military service member far from home, sitting in a lonesome bunker defending our freedoms. There are the medical personnel who have given up Christmases in the past and again today to care for those with infirmities that did not take Christmas off. For several Christmases, our whole nation sacrificed much to support the war effort of World War II, both in terms of lives and material things. As much as Christmas is a time of giving, it is born of sacrifice.
“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners; to proclaim the favorable year of the LORD and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that He may be glorified.” Isaiah 61:1-3
Christmas came because of the darkness, the heaviness, the despair and guilt from the hopelessness of sin. The Christ of Christmas was born to bring gladness over despair just as Mr. Longfellow suffered. We believe in the Promised One. The message of Christmas pierces the heaviness of our COVID burdened lives. It can even be said that the darkness from whatever might be dampening your Christmas helps us see the contrast between the heaviness we are experiencing and the joyful message of Christmas. For Longfellow, the chiming bells at Christmas reminded him of the Good News of the Christ of Christmas…
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.”
Friends. We have the Christ of Christmas. With our attention focused solely on Him may we celebrate with even greater joy and intent, Christmas in COVID.
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