The snow falls in soft whispers as you crunch down the sidewalk. Cars trundle down the road beside you, windshield wipers swishing, swishing as the drivers clench their steering wheels with white knuckles. Breath hisses in ribbons from your mouth, curling up to the blanket of clouds draped high above.
A sound drifts up to tickle your ears from off in the distance: the ringing of bells. They toll and they chime, their sweet reverberations melding together to form a beautiful Christmas carol. You are drawn to the music, numb hands stuffed in half-filled pockets. It is the old church: the one that has been there longer than anyone can honestly remember. The bells in its belly toll their joyous strains, and as they do a small group of carolers accompany the warm tones. For a moment, just a moment, you are transported to another world, another time. A place where peace on earth could actually exist. And you smile.
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.
But unbidden they slither into your mind: the dark, twisted little thoughts. You think of the recent school shooting. You think of children battling and dying of cancer. You think of babies being murdered inside of their mothers. You think of Jihadists and rapists and protesters and wars; you think of all of the pain and suffering and hatred and venom in society. Your smile gutters, and in its stead rises the dark twist of a sneer. Peace on earth is a fantasy. A lie. Perhaps it is a wonderful ideal, but it is a wonderful falsehood. How can it exist with such darkness writhing and raging in the heart of man?
How did we get to this place? How did we get here where innocence is nothing more than a distant memory? Where our leaders are liars and our heroes are fiction? How did we sink so far?
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.
You turn to leave and set the church firmly behind you. However, an elegant, picturesque nativity scene rises out of the blizzard giving you pause. And in that pause, it seems that the insistence of the bells triples. The hooks of the carolers’ songs lodge in your heart. You feel a chill run down your spine, and it does not come from the wonderland all around you. It feels like there is someone near. A Presence, weighty and definite. You cannot help it: you fall to your knees in the snow. God is in this place, and you had not known it.
You see the child lying in the manger, and for a moment it is as if you are transported back in time, to the faraway dusty streets of Bethlehem. A star burns in the sky as awestruck shepherds wander in from distant fields. And in that place a light rises: a light that, as it grows, rages against the gathering ebony dark. The light mushrooms out from that place, spreading out, out, driving the gnashing, thrashing night back. Though at many times it spreads under the surface and though it often seems like the vile black will finally overtake and smother it, still the light presses on. Though the Stygian bile sometimes seems to infect the light and dim it to embers, the light always burns it away. And then you realize that this light is people. It is men and women embodying the very essence of God going through all the earth, taking the message of God’s own Son and establishing a Kingdom not of this world on the very soil upon which they stand. In every little kindness, in every loving word, in every senseless act of generosity, these bright ones multiply and overtake the world. Not through conquest. Not through hatred. Not through apathy. Through Love. Through a care that cares nothing for its own being. Through the power of the Living God.
You cry out in shock as tears erupt like steaming tributaries down your cheeks. God is not dead. He lives. He has not left us alone. He is with us. He is active through His hands and His feet and a little whisper beckoning to the light. He loved us, and He loves us still. To say, “Merry Christmas” isn’t just to look back at the far-distant past: it is to spread His joy, right here and now, and it is to look forward to the day when there finally is peace on earth, good will to men.
Then peeled the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does He sleep!
The wrong shall fail,
The right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This is post two in the Advent series. You can find Part One, “In the Bleak Midwinter”, here. If all goes according to plan, part three should be out next week. Until then, share, comment, and be blessed!)
- Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth; “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” (1863.)