Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

Julia Margaret Cameron [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1800’s, many in the church thought the world was getting better and better.  Society would improve and wrongs would be overcome through social action.  This transformation of society would bring in a new millennium that would usher in the return and reign of Christ.

The Civil War changed that.  Whatever hope people had for the gradual improvement of society and the bringing forth of a new age through social action was dashed at this display of the hardened conflict of ideals manifested in the vast carnage of man’s inhumanity to man.

Henry Longfellow was not as much caught up in the theology of the moment.  For the poet Longfellow, this was personal.  His wife of eighteen years died tragically in a fire.  Then his son Charles, without discussion or permission, left to join the Union army.   On Christmas Day in 1863, Henry Longfellow, torn between a cynical lashing out and a helpless need for comfort penned these word:

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.”

Lashing out in hurt and anger is part of the human experience.  I don’t always get what I want and my version of life does not always prevail.  For Longfellow, the war raged on;  his son was badly injured.

Nevertheless, the poem ends with Longfellow’s willingness to unclench his fist.  He was willing to listen to a voice that was not his own head and  to humbly acknowledge  Someone bigger and a narrative more transcendent.

5 thoughts on “Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men?

  1. The same sentiment could well be shared this Christmas season. GOD IS STILL IN CHARGE!

    Lord,
    Make us who believe those words an instrument of your peace.

  2. Ah yes…nothing new under the sun, right? Still we have hope and the peace of God remains in our hearts (as Max Lucado wrote) because of Bethlehem.

  3. You who mourn because of the tragedy of this world–you are actually blessed. And you WILL be comforted. I’m telling you truly; don’t despair!
    (from the Sermon given in the midst of the Mounting trouble in this world)

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