In Luke 2:14 we read of what the multitude of angels in the Bethlehem skies were saying that first Christmas night to a band of frightened shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (New King James Version) For those of us who have grown up in the church this is such a familiar phrase, yet, have you thought about what it really means lately? Particularly the phrase “on earth peace?” And how is it going for you in your little corner of this earth? Is there peace in your house today? Or how about in your heart today? We live in a world, in a country, in which evil seems to be increasing. We are disturbed by the great divisions in our country, and the ever approaching threat of violence. We see great physical suffering even among our own friends and families. Can there really be peace on earth?
Well, increasing evil and suffering are not a new phenomenon. It was the state of the world Jesus was born into, and it has been the state of our country multiple times in the past. The song I am going to share with you today was born out of a time in which there was even more hate and animosity between United States citizens than there is today; and it was born out of great personal suffering that ultimately found its hope in the true message of Christmas. So here is “The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” recently posted on the Gospel Coalition website:
In March of 1863, 18-year-old Charles Appleton Longfellow walked out of his family’s house on Brattle Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and—unbeknownst to his family—boarded a train bound for Washington, D.C., traveling over 400 miles across the eastern seaboard in order to join President Lincoln’s Union army to fight in the Civil War.
Charles (b. June 9, 1844) was the oldest of six children born to Fannie Elizabeth Appleton and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the celebrated literary critic and poet. Charles had five younger siblings: a brother (aged 17) and three sisters (ages 13, 10, 8—another one had died as an infant).
Less than two years earlier, Charles’s mother Fannie had tragically died after her dress caught on fire. Her husband, awoken from a nap, tried to extinguish the flames as best he could, first with a rug and then his own body, but she had already suffered severe burns. She died the next morning (July 10, 1861), and Henry Longfellow’s facial burns were severe enough that he was unable even to attend his own wife’s funeral. He would grow a beard to hide his burned face and at times feared that he would be sent to an asylum on account of his grief.
When Charley (as he was called) arrived in Washington D.C., he sought to enlist as a private with the 1st Massachusetts Artillery. Captain W. H. McCartney, commander of Battery A, wrote to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow for written permission for Charley to become a soldier. HWL (as his son referred to him) granted the permission.
Longfellow later wrote to his friends Charles Sumner (senator from Massachusetts), John Andrew (governor of Massachusetts), and Edward Dalton (medical inspector of the Sixth Army Corps) to lobby for his son to become an officer. But Charley had already impressed his fellow soldiers and superiors with his skills, and on March 27, 1863, he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the 1st Massachusetts Cavalry, assigned to Company “G.”
After participating on the fringe of the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia (April 30-May 6, 1863), Charley fell ill with typhoid fever and was sent home to recover. He rejoined his unit on August 15, 1863, having missed the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863).
While dining at home on December 1, 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow received a telegram that his son had been severely wounded four days earlier. On November 27, 1863, while involved in a skirmish during a battle of the Mine Run Campaign, Charley was shot through the left shoulder, with the bullet exiting under his right shoulder blade. It had traveled across his back and skimmed his spine. Charley avoided being paralyzed by less than an inch.
He was carried into New Hope Church (Orange County, Virginia) and then transported to the Rapidan River. Charley’s father and younger brother, Ernest, immediately set out for Washington, D.C., arriving on December 3. Charley arrived by train on December 5. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was alarmed when informed by the army surgeon that his son’s wound “was very serious” and that “paralysis might ensue.” Three surgeons gave a more favorable report that evening, suggesting a recovery that would require him to be “long in healing,” at least six months.
On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow—a 57-year-old widowed father of six children, the oldest of which had been nearly paralyzed as his country fought a war against itself—wrote a poem seeking to capture the dynamic and dissonance in his own heart and the world he observes around him. He heard the Christmas bells that December day and the singing of “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14), but he observed the world of injustice and violence that seemed to mock the truthfulness of this optimistic outlook. The theme of listening recurred throughout the poem, eventually leading to a settledness of confident hope even in the midst of bleak despair.
The Christmas message of “Peace on Earth” is meant for today. It is not supposed to wait until everything is “alright” in our world; it was meant to occur in the midst of suffering (Romans 5:1-4). The peace of Christmas is greater than the pain we are going through, because the peace of Christmas is a supernatural peace (Philippians 4:7) of the heart and the soul. The peace of Christmas is peace with God (Romans 5:1), and the Peace of Christmas is Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:14, Micah 5:5). Yet, there even is more! The peace of Christmas is both now and not yet. For God promises in his word that someday this earth will be made new. Every trace of hate, division, and evil of any kind will be gone. No pain, no suffering, no tears, no death every again. We will live in a world filled with perfect peace, in a kingdom ruled by Christ Jesus which never ends! (Isaiah 9:7) Then will our souls be completely satisfied!
“Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever...”
A Christmas Prayer
Thank you Lord for what you did for me when you came to earth to bear my infirmities, and my sorrows; to take the full punishment for every one of my sins! For you knew much better than I did that without you I had no hope for peace, or joy, or life. I was rightly condemned to terror, torment, and torcher forever! Yet, you knew that when you knit me together; when you placed every cell, every molecule of my body, and every fiber of my soul together, that I was created for you; for your pleasure and your glory. Though I was blind to it, you knew that I was designed to find my every hope and pleasure in you, Lord. Forgive me, and help me, for I still forget this truth daily, and my unfaithful heart lusts after and craves many things other than you Lord! Yet, you still chose to suffer greatly to save me from myself! How amazing Lord are you! How deep and how vast is your Grace and Your Love. How fortunate am I to get to be loved by you, to get to know you, to be invited to your table in your house; not as a guest, but as your adopted son. Your house is my forever home; your loving face I will ever get to gaze into. Your loving arms I will forever get to run to and be held by. Thank you Lord for these incredible truths. Thank you Lord that your arms that will hold us, are not metaphors, but real arms, and real hands; the same hands that clung to Mary in the stable, and the same hands which were nailed to the cross for me! Please Lord, teach me about true peace, your peace, the peace you meant when you instructed the angels to tell the shepherds “peace on earth Good will toward men.” Thank you Lord for Christmas, and thank you Lord for the gift of yourself. Amen.