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  • Joshua Ziefle

Nor Doth He Sleep

In the midst of the crisis of the Civil War, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned a poem entitled "Christmas Bells." It was later set to music, and today we know it as the Christmas song "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day."


The song is notable amongst our carols for the touch of anguish it brings, reminding hearers of the pain in our world even in a season like Christmas:


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!


With America split by a great Civil War, and (if Wikipedia is to be believed) his wife dying just a few years before and son wounded in battle, Wadsworth had some things to be forlorn about. So much so that it might warrant writing the following:


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!


And there we have it: despair, hate, mocking, and an absence of a word we hear at Christmastime: peace. Such is the world that Wadsworth evokes in his poem, and the reminder this song creates for us. I like the lyric for its honesty and willingness to pause in a season of Christmas sentimentality and frothiness to say something real.


2020 has been a year marked by the pandemic, surely. I do not need to go into detail about that ways that has marked our existence these past nine months. But in the United States this year we have also come face-to-face with painful questions of racism and injustice. Furthermore, in our recent election (and its continuing fallout) we have seen some of the rhetoric and ire with which battles can be fought and the stark division it can illustrate. In case we ever started to doubt, we see clearly that hate is alive, still mocking songs of peace of good will.


For Wadsworth, though, this is not the end of the story. For there is a final verse. Words that are gospel--good news--and tell us that there is more than we might see. That pain and despair need not be forever. That there is a path forward. That the Almighty has not abandoned us. Such is message of Christmas and the coming of God to us in human form. It is the mission of Christ on Earth to accomplish the work of salvation available to all--and one than can affect not just individual lives but broken systems too. I believe it is a promise we need especially to hear and embrace this year.


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.


Merry Christmas, friends. Lord willing, I'll see you again in the new year.

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