“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

By Brian Johnson 

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is one of my favorite songs for the season of Advent.  It’s a song that embraces the tension I often feel during this season.  The message of Christmas is a message of hope: in Jesus, God is with us; in Jesus, we have received the promise of peace on earth; in Jesus, all is made new, and every wrong shall be made right.  That is the promise that God has given us, that is the message of this season. 

But, sometimes, hope seems hard to grasp.  This world is full of injustice, violence, oppression, hatred, division, fear, hunger, and more. Just as importantly, this is a hard time of year for many of us – lots of folks struggle with Christmas, as it’s a time that reminds us of people who we’ve lost.  The promise of Christmas is that the Light of the World (Jesus) has come to be with us, and that darkness will never overcome it.  But, sometimes it’s hard to see the light through all the darkness. 

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” is a song that wrestles with this reality.  It begins with frustration, perhaps even despair: 

I heard the bells on Christmas day 
Their old familiar carols play 
And mild and sweet their songs repeat 
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 

The song asks us: how can we sing “peace on earth” when the world is, so often, anything but peaceful?  But, then, the next verse, all of a sudden, breaks forth with resounding hope: 

Then rang the bells more loud and deep 
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth) 
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail 
With peace on earth, good will to men 

Part of the message of this season is that, even when it seems impossible, peace is on the way.  God is working for good, God is establishing a Kingdom of Peace, even when all the evidence of our day-to-day lives seems to point to the contrary.  God is not dead.  In fact, God has been born into the human family, to save us, and so, even when it feels hard to believe, we can trust that “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”  The hope that God gives us doesn’t depend on human achievement or on our ability to fix the world.  God sends hope that changes things, even when we can’t see it, even when we don’t know if we can believe it. 
The song is worth your time – especially if you’re someone who is struggling to hold onto hope during this season.  This is a great version by Casting Crowns. 

This song has been a source of hope for lots of folks walking through times that felt hopeless.  My friend Charlie Baber is an artist and a pastor in Raliegh, NC.  He writes a webcomic called “Wesley Bros” that explores faith from the perspective of Wesleyan/Methodist Christianity. (Check out his webpage here) Back in 2015, he made a comic based on the original poem – by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

Anyway, he’s given us permission to share that comic in this devotional, along with the reflection that he wrote to go with it.  For context, Charlie spent much of 2015 wrestling with the awful events of the shooting at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, where a white supremacist shot 9 Black people during a Bible Study.  His comic and the reflection that follows, reflect that wrestling.  Here’s what Charlie has drawn/written:

wesley bros comic: bells on christmas day

Here’s what Charlie wrote about his comic: 

Advent is the season of waiting.  Ultimately, we are waiting for things to be made right.  The world has seen so much violence, pain, and suffering, so much hatred in the name of ideology.  Each new outrageous act of violence triggers a swarm of angry slogans and political opponents pointing fingers.  In the midst of this same turmoil, the gift of God’s peace came in the form of a helpless newborn.  In the midst of this same violence, the Christ child fled to Africa to escape harm.  In the midst of this same ideological zealotry, the Messiah chose the way of cross and resurrection over silencing one’s enemies by the sword. 

The popular Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was originally the poem “Christmas Bells” by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.  During the Civil War, Longfellow’s son signed up to fight for the Union army and was seriously wounded in battle.  Still grieving from the loss of his beloved wife in a fire, Longfellow could not bear to face the otherwise joyous season of Christmas with the possibility of losing his son as well.  His poem has resonated with me since I was a young teenager.  I have always struggled with joy during Advent because it seems like peace is so hard to truly find on this planet.  So many people experience despair and sadness at Christmas time.  I believe that despair is a marker that we are longing for what was promised to us at that first Christmas…a time when peace on earth and goodwill towards all humanity is finally realized.  Though Longfellow was Unitarian, I see a lot in common with Wesleyan theology in this poem, a hope in the coming reign of Christ, and the call to all Christians to name the darkness, speak out against injustice and violent ‘solutions,’ and claim hope in God’s power to overcome. 

I chose to have Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, the founders of the AME denomination, to be the bell ringers for this comic.  I don’t know if Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC has bells or not, but that congregation has really demonstrated to me what the church is supposed to look like when it is faced with evil. 

Even in the midst of darkness, may we hold onto the light.  Even when it seems impossible, may we trust in the promise that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail.”  Peace to you, my friends. 

Looking for previous entries?

Find our ’22 Advent devotional archive online. haymarketchurch.org/advent

computer screen and phone screen with advent candle wreath and info about our 22 devotion