Hope beyond Christmas

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote a poem called Christmas Bells.  He did not write it by a cozy fire, surrounded by loved ones, singing and cheer.  He wrote it amid the horrors of the civil war, as he sat with his son, who had been badly wounded, and as he grieved the loss of his dear wife in a tragic accident.  He reflected on the words spoken by angels, as they announced the birth of the Christ child; “Peace on Earth, good will to men”.  He did not feel peace.  After his wife’s death he wrote “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” Six months later he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”

It seemed to him, and to anyone paying attention then, as now, that peace on Earth was an impossible dream.  All around he saw searing pain and loss, and the wanton spilling of blood.

Today there is searing pain and loss in virtually every corner of the planet.  Yet far too many of us blithely go shopping, put up decorations, and plan family gatherings, sumptuous meals, and gift exchanges.  We avert our eyes.  We simply cannot take the time to drink deeply of the sorrow, the loss, the injustice.  Peace on Earth?  It seemed to Longfellow almost too much to be hoped for.  So he penned these words:

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!

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!

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.”

So think about Longfellow.  Then think about your own situation.  What do we hope for?  Real hope must be realistic – it must be hope for an outcome that is really, actually possible.  Yet 2000 years after the birth of the Prince of Peace, our wars are just as devastating as they have ever been.  How can we save ourselves from ourselves?  How can we, the inhabitants of planet Earth, save ourselves from the pain of never-ending loss?

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail?  Based on what?  How can a hope like that be realistic?  On what do we base our hope?

As Konrad Adenauer was attempting to put his country back together after the devastation of WW2, he had a meeting with Billy Graham.  In it he asked “Mr. Graham, do you believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead?  Graham, somewhat surprised by his question answered, “Of course I do.”  Replied Chancellor Adenauer, “Mr. Graham, outside of the resurrection of Jesus, I do not know of any other hope for this world.”

Indeed.  If only we could rid ourselves of the evil people out there.

Yet, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so aptly put it, “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

I celebrated my 71st birthday this year, and if I have learned anything, it is this: we are absolutely incapable of avoiding our own destruction without outside help.  Yet counter to all the evidence, we are not without hope – realistic hope.  Jesus said “I have told you these things [his teachings], so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” 

We live in eager anticipation of the day when that will be obvious for all to see.  For now, only a small number of the people alive today can see reason to hope.  We are His sheep, who hear his voice, and follow Him.  And we know, as Horatio Spafford put it in one stanza of his wonderful hymn “It is well with my soul”:

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.

This Christmas, remember that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

Merry Christmas to all!

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