Today is the second Sunday of Advent: Peace.
Peace. That oft elusive feeling.
What is it exactly? Calm in the face of fear, anxiety, uncertainty? The ultimate ending to war and conflict, particularly on a global scale?
Perhaps it is both of those and everything in between. More than avoiding or ending war, but finding a way to get along with one’s neighbor. More than than facing life with yoga-like serenity, but calming the inner turmoil that keeps us awake at night.
This concept of peace. It’s light as a feather. Gone in a flash. Yet heavy as a weighted blanket.
All of this is wrapped up in the concept of peace. If I were to describe it in a scene, I would chose a winter one. That moment on a quiet night with snow softly falling and all seems right with the world. That’s it, isn’t it? What we are trying to grasp with our search for peace? The tranquility of a sea as still as glass?
Whenever I think of peace and Christmas, I hear Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Christmas Bells playing through my head. You know the one, it begins:
I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
I’ve often wondered what it is about that poem that speaks to me. Especially in relation to the concept of peace. It can feel like a wordy song when put to melody and err a tad on the depressing side. Knowing the history behind it, however, explains much.
Longfellow wrote the poem on Christmas Day during the heart of the Civil War (US) after hearing news his son, a Union soldier, may have suffered a fatal wound. This poem, the heartache, the plea for peace and good will, it was his response to the unspeakable hurt and hate rending through his country reflected in his personal tragedy. (source) A response that has echoed through time and multiple wars and social unrest.
Perhaps that is why the second to last verse is the one that has always struck me the most:
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!”
It’s as if, in his personal grief, Longfellow can feel the pain of millions of people and put their cry to words.
What is it about Christmas that brings this out in us? That we desire peace most of all? That it doubles our desire to experience good-will toward each other? Even for just a night. Like the story of the impromptu Christmas truces that rose up throughout World War 1? It’s like a special Christmas magic that seeks to spread peace, sweet heavenly peace. It lends strength to the next and final strain of Longfellow’s poem:
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.”
How this can be? To turn us so strongly from despair to confidence that peace will win. That war will end. That our souls will find rest. Especially when people believe so oppositely than one another, whose cultures are so different that it creates a monumental divide? Greater minds than mine have full treaties on the subject (and have been awarded such honors as the Nobel Peace Prize for their work). All I can think is that the answer is somehow tied to Christmas.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:14, kjv)
Through the centuries, echoes of this heavenly wish for peace and goodwill that the angels declared to the shepherds the night Jesus was born have been felt in our hearts. The baby whose birth we celebrate at the end of advent. The one called Prince of Peace. One day he will fully calm the storm. Until then, we can take heart at the sound of Christmas Bells declaring peace will come.