And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Gospel of Luke 2:8-14 (King James Version of the Holy Bible)
Where, then, is the peace?
Shortly after Jesus’ birth, Herod the Great hears of the proclamations surrounding the birth of a Jewish king and responds by ordering what has come to be called The Massacre of the Innocents.
Then Herod called the Magi secretly and learned from them the exact time the star had appeared. And sending them to Bethlehem, he said: “Go and search carefully for the Child, and when you find Him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship Him.”
After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great delight. On coming to the house, they saw the Child with His mother Mary, and they fell down and worshiped Him. Then they opened their treasures and presented Him with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they withdrew to their country by another route.
When the Magi had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up!” he said. “Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him.”
So he got up, took the Child and His mother by night, and withdrew to Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. This fulfilled what the Lord had spoken through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
When Herod saw that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was filled with rage. Sending orders, he put to death all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, according to the time he had learned from the Magi.
Gospel of Matthew 2:7-16 (Berean Study Bible)
Since the angel’s declaration and the song of the Heavenly host, precious little peace has been found anywhere on earth and when it is, it is tenuous and fleeting. Wars, famine, pestilence, economic depressions, depression, murder, mayhem, the slaughter of the innocent unborn all over the world, men preying on women, everyone jumping on everyone on Twitter, bad news, fake news…where is the good news? Where is the peace on earth? Where is the goodwill among people?
What about tragedy, suffering, and loss?
The American Winter of 1863 was among its bitterest, not for the weather but for the war between the states. On January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the final Emancipation Proclamation, declaring that all slaves within the rebellious south “are, and henceforth shall be free.”
These were the darkest days of the Civil War. In July, the Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest of them all, raged for three days. The Confederate forces lost 28,000 soldiers and the Union lost 23,000 in this one, bloody battle. On July 4, Ulysses S. Grant and his Union army captured Vicksburg following a 47-day siege.
On Christmas Day, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem that would become one of our most cherished Christmas hymns, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
Longfellow, one of America’s most beloved poets, had been an abolitionist and lent his voice and pen to the cause of freedom for America’s slaves. As far back as 1942, Longfellow threw his weight against the institution of slavery with a small collection called Poems on Slavery.
In 1843, he married Frances “Fannie” Appleton after a long courtship. Longfellow wrote just one love poem, a sonnet he named The Evening Star. In the sonnet, his love and devotion to Fannie were undeniably stamped.
On July 9, 1861, while putting locks of her children’s hair into an envelope and sealing it with hot sealing wax, her dress caught fire. She was engulfed in flames. Henry attempted to put out the fire and suffered severe injuries, especially to his face. Fanny died the next day. Henry was devastated. He grieved so terribly, he thought he might need to be committed to an insane asylum at one point. He resorted to Laudanum to ease the pain.
In March of 1863, Henry’s son Charles left to join the Union army. He did so without telling his father or other family members. On December 1, 1863, Henry received a telegram informing him that his son was gravely injured in battle. Charles had been shot through the left shoulder.
Henry had all but laid down his pen from the time of his wife’s death to December 1863. His son’s injury exacerbated his grief. He felt the weight of hopelessness and despair, despite the hopeful faith that had buoyed him through his sometimes triumphant, sometimes turbulent life.
Do you hear the bells now ringing?
On Friday, December 25, 1863, Christmas Day, the great poet heard the church bells ringing in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he lived. Weighing the injustices against which he had struggled, the bitter war that had ripped apart his beloved America, and his personal losses against the promise of “peace on earth” associated with Christmas, Henry penned the amazing poem that would later be set to music and is today a classic Christmas hymn.
What exactly is “peace on earth”?
Like Longfellow, we struggle to reconcile the promise of peace on earth with the reality of the world in which we live and the lives we live. We see dissonance and disharmony, hatred and vitriol, fighting and feuding, pain and loss, and we wonder, “Where is this peace?”
The key that Longfellow discovered is this: Peace on earth is not the same as peaceful earth; it is not the peace of the world, but finding peace while in the troubled world.
In that day you will no longer ask Me anything. Truly, truly, I tell you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
I have spoken these things to you in figures of speech. An hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you this way, but will tell you plainly about the Father. In that day you will ask in My name. I am not saying that I will ask the Father on your behalf. For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God. I came from the Father and entered the world. In turn, I will leave the world and go to the Father.”
His disciples said, “See, now You are speaking plainly and without figures of speech. Now we understand that You know all things and that You have no need for anyone to question You. Because of this, we believe that You came from God.”
“Do you finally believe?” Jesus replied. “Look, an hour is coming and has already come when you will be scattered, each to his own home, and you will leave Me all alone. Yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me. I have told you these things so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take courage; I have overcome the world!”
Conversation between Jesus and His disciples
Gospel of John 16:23-33, Berean Study Bible
Jesus tells us right there what real peace is all about. It is not a peaceful world or a trouble-free existence. It is the inner peace that comes from communion with Christ. It is not peace from the storm but peace in the storm.
As Christians, we are both comforted by divine peace, a peace that is beyond the comprehension of the unbelieving world (Philippians 4:7), but we are also called to peace.
We must be peace seekers (Psalm 34:14, 1 Peter 3:10,11)
We must be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9; James 3:18)
We must be peace promoters (Isaiah 52:7; Ephesians 4:3)
We must be peace junkies, if you will (Colossians 3:15)
I hope you hear the bells this Christmas, the bells that ring of peace on earth, goodwill to men.