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The Promise of Peace

December 15, 2008

THE PROMISE OF PEACE

            In our family, we have maintained the tradition of the Advent wreath. When our children were young, we displayed a wreath on a table in our foyer.  We had purchased the decoration when we lived in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. It was a simple circle with four red candles around the perimeter. A tall dowel wrapped in red ribbon held a tiny paper Moravian star above a manger scene created entirely out of cornhusk doll figures.

            Each Sunday in Advent we gathered our five children around the wreath to light the next candle. One year, on the third Sunday of Advent, we lit the peace candle. We read a scripture passage from Isaiah about the promise of peace. We sang a Christmas carol. As I was offering the closing prayer, there shone a great light! Our Advent wreath with cornhusk figures caught on fire!

            Holy smoke!

            I grabbed the flaming wreath and started for the front door. Clare shouted, “Throw it in the bathtub!”

            I did as she said and turned on the shower.

            The smoke alarm was blasting. Younger children were crying. Older ones were laughing. All of us were greatly relieved.

            Before Christmas, we replaced the wreath and the star. Some of the figures were burned beyond recognition. A few were charred but still recognizable. To this day, we have a manger scene of cornhusk figures. Several of them still carry the singes from the fire.

            For many Christmas can be a very difficult time. Like the figures in the manger scene, in this season there are many who bear the scars of Christmas past. Those who have carried the burden of grief during the holidays or those who have spent Christmas in the hospital know all too well how difficult this season can be. Some have spent Christmas in prison. Many have spent Christmas away from home in military service.

            It was in a world just like this one that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. It was into this kind of hardship that Jesus was born, out back, in less than ideal circumstances.

            Several of our best-loved carols reflect this truth. The story behind some of these songs, the story of the lives and times of the people who wrote them, can lead to a greater appreciation of the music that is so integral to Christmas.

These are difficult days for many Americans. The last several Advent seasons have been marked by economic hardship, the constant threat of terror, and war that has brought much sorrow to American families.

America has seen trying times before, perhaps none more troubling than the Civil War. It was in the depths of that brutal conflict that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of America ‘s most famous poets, wrote the words to a familiar Christmas carol

In 1843, Longfellow, already a widower, married Frances Appleton. They settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Henry and Fanny eventually had six children. Their life as a family was happy. 

Their serenity was abruptly disturbed during the Civil War. In the summer of 1861, Fanny Longfellow was melting sealing wax on an envelope when the long folds of her dress caught fire. Her dress ablaze, she ran into Henry’s study. He desperately tried to smother the flames with a small rug and his own body. Henry was badly burned on his face, arms and hands. Fanny suffered much worse; she died the next morning.

Longfellow was despondent after his wife’s death. Enduring Christmas without Fanny, Henry captured in his journal the sentiments so many have felt through the ages: “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

In early December 1863, Henry received word that his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac had been severely wounded. Although Charles would survive, his recovery at that time was uncertain.

Longfellow greeted that Christmas with a heavy heart. He’d lost his wife, his son had nearly died, and the country continued making war on itself.

The bells that Henry heard ringing that Christmas inspired him to write the poem that would eventually become a carol, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

Longfellow’s personal difficulties and the war give the words to the carol a deeper meaning.

 

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 thought how, as the day had come

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

The third verse takes on a much darker tone, reflecting Longfellow’s mood.

 

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.’

 

Even in his despair, the last verse of the carol gives reason for hope.

 

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.’

 

            This Advent, the singed figures on our wreath and the words to Longfellow’s carol will be for me reminders of one of the most important themes of Christmas.

Peace is not the absence of conflict or difficulty.

Peace is a gift of grace to the human soul.

Kirk H. Neely

© December 2008

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