It was in 1864, during the American Civil War, that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote the hymn,
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.
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good will to men.
Carols “old and familiar” with words “wild and sweet”... As the Christmas season comes around again, the carols and sentiments are in the air again - familiar, idealistic, sentimental...?
For Longfellow, the message of “peace on earth, good will to men” was desperately needed - and notably missing - in the America of his day. His fourth and fifth verses, with their specific reference to the Civil War, are usually omitted from the hymnals -
Then from each black, accursèd 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.
Here was a country which professed a Christian heritage. Surely here the ideals of peace and good will should be securely found. But it wasn’t so -
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.”
“Peace”? “Good will”? The need was obvious and desperate. But human “hate is strong and mocks the song”. Well, that’s the earthly picture, but isn’t God supposed to fit into this somewhere? Does this in some way negate God’s presence and involvement in our human situation? Does human hate cancel out the message of the carols?
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.”
We too hear the Christmas bells - in our own style. Another season’s crushing is over. The decorations are going up. Christmas lights are appearing once again. The cash registers ring out a merry note. The muted carols form a pleasant background to our shopping.
And then we watch the evening news and, like Longfellow, bow our head in despair. Suicide bombings and reprisals now enter our living rooms. The message of fear - and might Australia be next? - breeds uncertainty. Violence and break-ins - coming soon to our area? Moral decline - where will it all end?
Where on earth is this peace and good will? The questions of Longfellow during the American Civil War turn out to be our questions too.
As we listen to the angels’ song in modern translations, we hear a slightly different emphasis coming through. “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favour rests” (Lk. 2.14, NIV).
Is the problem that we want to have peace and good will without giving glory to God in the highest? The “good will” is God’s “favour”. It is freely offered to all. The peace is experienced by those who receive God’s favour. Jesus said to the disciples that is in him they would have peace - “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16.33).
Once again it is Christmas time. Receive the Christ who was born - who lived and died and is alive again. He is our peace!
Have a truly Happy Christmas!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Link, December 2003