I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

I often tell people that, within the context of Christian music, the words of most beloved hymns & carols boil down to this:  those lyrics are someone’s story put to music.

As with the heart-breaking story behind Horatio Spafford’s It is Well, we would do well to familiarize ourselves with the drama that gives life to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.

Below, you will find a concise telling of the story behind Wadsworth’s poem as he searches desperately for peace and hope during a time of great pain.

Below the story is a beautiful arrangement of the song originally made popular by Casting Crowns.  However, the one I’ve linked for you here is sung by a precious couple in my church, Zach & Melissa Walker.  I much prefer their version.  It’s absolutely beautiful.

Peace on earth, Nick

From the Gospel Coalition:

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).

1868
1868

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 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.

 

Silent Night? Not So Much…

Last night (Christmas Eve), before we all turned in, I shared with the family “the other side of the nativity.”

Award-winning author, Philip Yancey, in his book, “The Jesus I Never Knew” shares,

“Christmas cards of the religious genre typically depict a serene manger scene with Mary and Joseph surrounded by shepherds, animals, etc. All is calm.  But when I read the gospels i detect a much different tone.”

Yancey goes on to write, “Politically – and spiritually – Jesus was born into a scene more resembling the movie ‘Saving Private Ryan.”

In the first few verses of Revelation 12, via a series of vignettes of scenes past and future, we are given a peek behind the proverbial curtain as to what was going on that silent night.  

The dragon, Satan, has, for centuries, done all in his power to prevent the Messiah from coming by attempting to cut off the messianic bloodline.  

He fails every time. 

Then, on that silent night, John records in Revelation 12, the dragon eagerly awaited the moment of Jesus’s birth so he could immediately kill him, thus destroying the hope of mankind. 

Again, he failed.  

Some 30 years later, on the night before he would do the very thing for which he was born – die for us – he said, “The prince of this world is coming. He has no hold on me.”

The next day, the man who was once the tiny baby we see in pictures and paintings, beaten and bloody, from a Roman cross, said, “It is finished.”

No wonder the angel announced to the shepherds, “Behold! I bring you good news of great joy! For unto you this day is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

Happy Christmas, St. Nick ❤️

Joy vs. Happiness

Happiness is rooted in circumstances.  Joy, on the other hand, is rooted in biblical truth – regardless of our circumstances.

This is precisely why, incarcerated for his faith, Paul, while still languishing in prison, could write, Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!

Make no mistake: the type of joy Paul writes of here is not a paper-thin, over-the-top, emotional celebration.

Biblical joy runs deep.  Deeper than our most acute pain.

Germany.  Christmas, 1942…

During the Christmas season of 1942, the German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote the statement below while under severe persecution for his Christian faith. Two and a half years after this quote was penned, Bonhoeffer was executed by Hitler’s Secret Service.  He was 39:

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye but finds life precisely within it.” Dietrich Bonheoffer (Christmas, 1942)

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

 

The Gospel According to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”

“I wear the chain I forged in life…. I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

Jacob Marley

The quote cited above, of course, is from Charles Dickens’ beloved story, A Christmas Carol – a story reassuring us that, regardless of how much we’ve messed up here on planet earth, there is hope still.  Jacob Marley, Scrooge’s business partner in life, now “dead these seven years,” returns to show the hateful, miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge the judgment that awaits him should he not change his ways.  The “chains” of bitterness Marley “forged in life” now imprison him for all eternity.

But, as the fates would have it, Scrooge was given a final chance to change his ways.  The opportunity given to Scrooge, offered via three benevolent spirits, to avoid altogether the judgment that had fallen upon his friend was completely unsolicited, unwanted and undeserved.

Yet it came.

We all know how the story ends.  Scrooge is changed.  The bitterness that filled his heart, like the heart of Dr. Seuss’ Grinch, was transformed, filled with love, kindness and graciousness.

Through Jeremiah the prophet (not the bullfrog), God warns mankind, “The heart (of mankind) is deceitful, and desperately sick…”     In other words, we, like Scrooge, have a fatal flaw (sin), and are in desperate need of help and hope.

That help and hope has come through Christ Jesus. 

In his powerful hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, the 16th century reformer, Martin Luther, wrote,

Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.

Were the right man not on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.

You ask who that may be – Christ Jesus, it is he!

Like Scrooge, we have a chance for redemption.  Unlike Scrooge, that redemption is in no way dependent on our own human effort.  In short, the Bible says, regardless of how many “prize turkeys in the window we purchase for the Cratchit family,” we can never be “good enough” to merit redemption in Christ.  And this is why Christ came to earth to die by Roman execution and rise from the dead three days later.  It is faith in his life & death & resurrection that makes us “good/righteous enough” to stand blameless before a holy God.

Paul, author of most of the New Testament, knew a thing or two about feeling hopelessly lost.  “What a wretched man I am!” he wrote.  He continued,

Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Oh, the love of God in his Son, Jesus Christ.

Elsewhere, Paul wrote,

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins... [but] even though we were dead because of our sins, [God] gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!)

Scrooge woke up on Christmas morning a brand new man.  A man redeemed.  A man saved from eternal judgment.

According to God, we have that same opportunity.  Except for real…

…anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!

For those who may mistakenly think they are beyond redemption, or for those who’ve already professed faith in Christ but, because of some life error(s), feel as though God could never again love, restore & use them:

No matter where you are in life – there is no mistake God can’t correct, no mess God can’t clean up, no knot God can’t untie, no sin God can’t forgive.  The power of our mistakes pale in comparison to the redemptive power of the Cross.

“It’s Christmas Day!” said Scrooge to himself.  “I haven’t missed it.  The Spirits have done it all in one night.  They can do anything they like.  Of course they can.  Of course they can!”

Christ came the first time as a humble Servant.  He’ll come next time as a righteous Judge.  For now, if you’ve never honestly investigated the claims of Christ, you haven’t “missed it.”  Christ settled our account before a Holy God not “all in one night,” but all in a single moment.

This is what Christ meant when, on the cross – just before his final breath, he said, “It is finished.”

What Christ finished – is our new beginning.

Soli Deo Gloria & Merry Christmas, Nick

 

Bethlehem Happened for One Reason: Calvary

carpenter shop cross

From Philip Yancey’s award-winning book, “The Jesus I Never Knew”:

“When the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci went to China in the sixteenth century, he brought along samples of religious art to illustrate the Christian story for people who had never heard it.

The Chinese readily adopted portraits of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but when he produced paintings of the crucifixion and tried to explain that the God-child had grown up only to be executed, the audience reacted with revulsion and horror. They much preferred the Virgin and insisted on worshiping her rather than the crucified God.

As I thumb once more through my stack of Christmas cards (with front covers depicting calm, peaceful manger scenes), I realize that we in Christian countries do much the same thing.

We observe a mellow, domesticated holiday purged of any hint of scandal. Above all, we purge from it any reminder of how the story that began at Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.”

In his wonderful book, God With Us: The Miracle of Christmas, John MacArthur reminds us,

“Here’s a side to the Christmas story that isn’t often told:  those soft little hands, fashioned by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, were made so that nails might be driven through them…..Jesus was born to die.”

Finally, in the beloved carol, What Child is This, there is a chorus originally written by its author that is not often sung:

Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you;
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

Obviously, for Jesus to die he first had to be born.  And we joyously celebrate that birth every Christmas season.  But, a miraculous birth, alone, would not save his people from their sins.”   This is precisely why, only after the Cross, did Jesus utter, “It is finished.”

“For our sake,” Paul wrote, “he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Soli Deo Gloria & Merry Christmas, Nick

Christ, Christmas & the Loss of a Child

Christmas, 2012, was the last time I helped decorate our tree. Since our 19 year old son, Jordan, died the following May, decorating the tree is something I/we have simply been unable to do.

Our tree is not a “decorative showpiece” like you see so beautifully decorated in some homes. Almost every ornament on our tree is something made by our three kids when they were in preschool or elementary, or else purchased by them over the past 20+ years. (We had a tradition of going to Holland Gardens here in Lubbock every December and each child would pick out an ornament to put on the tree.) So, as you can imagine, Jordan’s picture and “fingerprints” are everywhere. (See pic below)

The first Christmas without Jordan we had to call friends and ask them if they would decorate the tree for us. The following year, the same. Last year, we put up the tree at the beginning of December – and it simply sat there undecorated for two weeks. Then  our daughter, Macy, came home from college and surprised us by decorating it herself. (I’ll never forget walking into the house, seeing the tree, and just weeping.)

Yesterday morning (12/2/16), I walked into our living room and there stood our tree. Once again, it had been up for a week. No decorations. I immediately was overcome with a crushing sense of sadness and wanted to leave the house and go anywhere else. But then, I felt a Presence. And something came to mind: “The joy of the LORD is your strength.” This one phrase from Nehemiah kept reverberating in my mind – like a Christmas miracle, the Holy Spirit was, right then and there, “renewing/strengthening my mind.” I felt like Rocky, somehow mustering the inner strength to get back up off the bloodied mat, after Apollo Creed beat his face in. 🙂) Christ was whispering to me, “I. Am. Here. I’ve got this.”

My wife, Michelle, was traveling home from a conference in Dallas. When she arrived home yesterday evening and walked into our house…..well, you’re getting ahead of me, aren’t you? 🙂 There stood our tree. Fully decorated.  (See pic below)

When Michelle shared all of this with our daughter, Macy, she just wept and said, “Dad, it’s so good to have you back.” Joy has been is short supply since 2013. But, slowly, it is returning. Merry Christmas.

“The joy of the LORD is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10)

Soli Deo Gloria, St. Nick

jordan

christmas-tree-2016

The Manger I Never Knew

Below is a link to Chapter 2 of Philip Yancey’s award-winning book, The Jesus I Never Knew.  Published in 1995, it is one of my all-time favorites.

Entitling this chapter, “Birth: The Visited Planet”, Yancey brilliantly brings to light truth and nuance most of us would otherwise miss when considering the story of Jesus’ birth.  “How could we possibly miss important details of the birth of Jesus Christ?” you may ask.  Well – the problem  actually lies in the story’s familiarity – we’ve heard it so many times the tendency is to forget or, at best, minimize exactly what “went down” that critical night in Bethlehem.

May this narrative commentary bring depth and richness to your Christmas season.

Merry Christmas, St. Nick

THE JESUS I NEVER KNEW – Chapter 2 – Birth of Jesus – Yancey

nativity