December 18, 2023
As the bell choir played, the words to the song “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” were projected on the sanctuary screens. The choir director wanted the congregation to be able to take in the message of a song that begins on a mournful note and then moves to hope.
The words come from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow during the Civil War and a period of deep personal grief. In many ways, the lyrics mirror so many of the Psalms. This book of the Bible is a collection of songs and poetry written generations ago. Some psalms are pure joy, but many begin with words of grief, complaints, and questions. Psalm 13 opens with the cry, “How long, O Lord?” Who hasn’t asked that question at least once in our lives, if not in the past week?
Perhaps there’s no more fitting example of the distress that opens Longfellow’s poem and the song than the lack of festive lights and activities this year in the city of Jesus’ birth. Because of the war in nearby Gaza, Bethlehem will forego its usual celebration in Manger Square.
Jesus was born in a time and place under the control of an oppressive and cruel regime. And yet, even before his birth, his mother sang a song of faith and protest. She sang of God’s holiness and how her child would challenge the political and social order of the day.
We will not have peace on all the earth this Christmas, nor have we ever.
And yet, we light the candles of the Advent wreath during the weeks leading to Christmas. As we have said throughout the season, we light them as a reminder and a charge. We remember the promises of Jesus, charged to be people who are peace-bearers.
As we move through the days of December, the ring of light on our Advent wreaths grows brighter and brighter. Finally, on Christmas Eve, we light the Christ candle, a sign and an affirmation of the hope, peace, joy, and love that Jesus offers. We begin in darkness and move toward light. So that the bells will peal more loudly and deeply: “God is not dead nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail, with peace on earth, good-will to all.
May it be so. May your Christmas be one of light, hope, and promise. May you be a light of hope and promise to our weary world.