This column originally ran in the Freeport Journal-Standard on December 20, 2014 and was later updated to reflect the events of the following days.
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
Like me, the great poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a son of Portland, Maine. He’s immortalized in bronze there, seated in a chair in a casual listening pose, looking perfectly wise, holding some papers, his books close at hand under the chair. At this time of year he’s usually sporting a striped scarf and has a wrapped Christmas present on his lap.
He had enormous success—in 1874 he sold a poem for $3,000, about $60,000 in today’s dollars—but faced enormous tragedy. The lyrics of “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day,” flowed from deep heartache.
His first wife, Mary, who had been a friend from childhood, was only 22 when she died after a miscarriage. While suffering from agonizing grief, he met Francis Appleton and was stricken with a deep, yearning love for her, a love so great he would court her for seven years. They had six children, and he wrote of her as his “morning and evening star of love” in a published sonnet. But in 1861 she was burned to death in a freak accident. He was badly burned trying to save her and was never able to shave again, hence his famous, magnificent beard. He never fully recovered and was haunted by the fear his grief would drive him mad.
In 1863 their son Charles joined the Union Army against his father’s wishes, becoming the commander of an artillery battery. In late November a Confederate bullet passed through Charles’ back close to his spine. On Christmas morning, the poet put pen to paper and poured out pain:
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, goodwill to men”
Longfellow would understand what gushes out of our radios, televisions and browsers today. Hate is strong.
In Ferguson, unreasoning hate burned a neighborhood. Those who claimed they wanted justice for Michael Brown burned the church where his parents worship. They wrecked black-owned businesses, including the cake shop of Natalie Dubose, a single mother of two who had sold cakes at flea markets for years to fund her dream. A photo of her weeping went viral, symbolizing the city’s pain.
In Iraq, ISIS sweeps forward, crucifying and enslaving. They paint an Arabic N, for “Nasara” or “Nazarene” on the homes of Christians, then give them a choice: Convert, leave or die. Most leave, giving up virtually every material possession and their professional lives.
Then rang 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, goodwill to men!”
The day after the riots, Natalie DuBose weeps again. Donations have poured into a charity website set up for her. “I can’t stop crying, finally trying to actually read all your supportive and loving words,” she writes on Facebook. “Phone is ringing AND [I’M] BAKING! I love you all so much! God Bless America!” She receives nearly $500,000 in donations, almost all from perfect strangers.
The Iraqi refugees are hopeful. “God is giving us grace,” says one displaced pastor. Christian relief agencies such as Voice of the Martyrs have stepped in to address their needs: housing, beds, food, water, reading materials. They are bloodied, but not defeated. “[T]hey have united us as Christians,” a local leader says. “The next generation will forget who persecutes us. But they will not forget those who help us and support us.” Ongoing relief efforts will be partly funded by “I Am N” T-shirts sold in the West. They’re emblazoned with a scarlet Arabic N.
And Charles Appleton Longfellow lived and thrived. He became a skilled writer in his own right and accompanied the U.S. ambassador to Japan on important missions there, including a tour of the country that brought them to places no American had yet gone.
I don’t pretend all is healed and wrapped in a red bow. Our world is broken. ISIS boasts. Ferguson stings. This weekend unreasoning hate took the lives of two NYPD officers. But what was it Dr. King said? “Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
Then ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men
Humans hated. God sent love. He sent a Son, willingly. And He lives, too. That’s why more hope than despair poured from Longfellow’s pen that day. To borrow from another carol, our streets are dark, but in these dark streets shines the everlasting light.
Can you hear the bells? Don’t ask for whom they toll. They toll for thee.
Peace on earth, goodwill to men!
Photo credit: “LongfellowMonument2” by Namiba – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:LongfellowMonument2.jpg#/media/File:LongfellowMonument2.jpg