How can there be “Joy To the World” when there is so much sorrow on Earth?
How can there be thoughts of sleigh bells jingling, chestnuts roasting on an open fire or Jack Frost nipping at our noses when war rages in Israel and Ukraine, and deep hatred of God’s chosen people continues seething in our nation’s streets?
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America’s greatest poets, thought the same exactly 160 years ago.
On Christmas Day, 1863, the Civil War was a ravaging storm, ripping a gashing hole in the fabric of the Republic — while at the same time Longfellow suffered from personal tragedies.
Fanny, his wife of 18 years and the mother of his six children, had died in a fiery accident in their home after her dress caught fire from a lit candle. Longfellow’s son Charlie was critically injured fighting for the Union army near Washington, D.C.
So on that day, the sound of the church bells heralding Christmas seemed to mock the very thought of “peace on Earth.”
Yet through his personal grief and the torment of a war that would claim nearly a million lives, Longfellow penned his famous poem that has become a Christmas carol for the ages, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Each stanza of Longfellow’s poem ends with “peace on Earth, good will to men.”
Modern readers living in a post-women’s rights world shouldn’t take offense at the “good will to men.”
One, it’s referring to mankind — humanity — not specifically the male gender. And two, it’s based on the King James translation of the Bible, of Luke 2:14: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.”
The poem takes the reader on a journey from how the bells herald the mirth in the traditions surrounding Christmas: “Their old, familiar carols play/And wild and sweet.”
The words then repeat “Of peace on earth, good-will to men!” through the start of war and the blasts of bombs.
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 then questions God’s existence and omnipotence.
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!”
Finally, through the din, it lets the bells speak of that one great truth.
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.”
One of our great misfortunes today comes from not letting the carols of Christmas take their rightful place of importance.
Advertisers use them to sell products and so we miss their true meaning. A phone company’s radio ad uses “Joy to the World” to hype a new phone plan.
Instead of “The Lord is come, let heaven and earth rejoice” — we now hear how much better one company’s wireless plan is over another.
How can a hurting world know joy’s powerful message of hope for a darkened world when marketing takes precedence over the words, “He rules the world with truth and grace, No more let sin and sorrow grow … He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.”
The most popular Christmas carol used in marketing ads is “Carol of the Bells.”
Few know its original rhythmic lyrics: “Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away, Christmas is here, bringing good cheer, to young and old, meek and the bold.”
Each stanza is punctuated by the sounds of “ding, dong, ding, dong.”
Although its lyrics make no deep theological statement about the birth of Jesus, according to GodTube, the biblical inspiration for “Carol of the Bells” has Old Testament roots.
Here is Zechariah 14:20: “And on that day there shall be inscribed on the bells of the horses, ‘Holy to the Lord.’ And the pots in the house of the Lord shall be as the bowls before the altar.”
The verses in Exodus 28:33-35 talk about the bells ringing on Aaron’s robe as he ministers in the holy place before the Lord.
And Psalm 150 says, “Let everything that has breath, praise the Lord.”
Popular Christmas songs have their place, including wonderful tunes like “Silver Bells,” “White Christmas” and “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire).”
Even songs about Rudolph, and Frosty the snowman, and walking in a winter wonderland all warm our hearts during the holidays.
But it is only in carols that we truly understand Christmas — of the joy at the birth of Jesus, and also the somberness of what Jesus was born to do: to die.
A good example is “What Child Is This,” which brings joy and sorrow poignantly together as it sees the beauty and innocence of a tiny babe asleep on His mother’s lap: “What child is this who lays to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping.”
Yet it still sings of the future sorrow: “Nails, spears, shall pierce Him through, the cross be born for me for you. Hail, hail the Word made flesh, the babe, the Son of Mary.”
That Jesus was born to die for our sins, to breach the chasm between God and humanity, is the joy and sorrow of this season.
There is joy because He left His glory aside to live among us, abide with us, live the life we couldn’t live.
And there is sorrow because our sin, the curse, was and is so great that God Himself took the wrath of his own judgment — and died the death we deserve.
Carols make sense of why there are still wars and suffering at Christmas. Carols express that the world isn’t the way it should be, but they give us tremendous hope in what it could be.
The carol “O come O come Emanuel” is a mournful tune, almost funereal. Yet its refrain pleads, “Rejoice, Rejoice!”
Why? Because “Emanuel, shall come to thee, oh Israel.”
Emanuel means “God with us.” That means because of Christmas, a new, category-busting power has come into the world, one not available for the tens of thousands of years of human existence before.
Grace and a love that surpasses all understanding is what became available because of Christmas.
The story of Longfellow’s famous poem is now the subject of a feature-length film, “I Heard the Bells,” available on demand through most cable and streaming platforms.
To an age of AI and computer technology, a little story about a 19th century poet may seem anachronistic.
But bestselling author and nationally syndicated columnist Cal Thomas notes that from his standpoint, things never really change.
Said Thomas, “You can change hairstyles, clothes, styles, modes of transportation. You can even change politicians. But nothing really seems to change … A lot of that has to do with human nature.”
Longfellow’s poem still bears the truth because it was based on divine reality.
Yes, hate is strong — but God’s love is stronger.
Wars do bring death — but God through Jesus Christ has conquered death.
And because God is now “with us,” there is hope … even with a broken heart.
And there is triumph even amid tragedy.
This Christmas Day, strain your ears, push aside the din of the culture, the city, the war, the pain … and hear the bells.