During times of personal crisis, it is common for us to lose hope. When that is combined with crisis on a greater scale, it is even easier to find ourselves heading towards depression. This beautiful poem, written on Christmas day in 1864 and later turned into a song in 1872, is well known to many, but most people know it from the song, which added further verses. It is usually sung without the middle stanzas of Longfellow’s poem. That leaves out an important part of the journey through despair to hope again.
Longfellow had fallen into depression with the loss of his 2nd wife Frances when her clothes caught on fire while sealing envelopes with hot wax in 1861. Henry had tried to smother the flames, first with a rug and finally with his own body, but the burns were so severe that she ended up dying the next day. Longfellow, who was also badly burned, was so ill that he was unable to attend her funeral. Their 18 years of marriage had been the happiest time in his life and after her death, he all but abandoned his creative work for a time, instead supporting their family by translating other works.
That Christmas Longfellow would write in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” At Christmas time in 1862 he would write, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Many people can relate to those expressions when they have experienced loss. Family gatherings can be marked more by the absence of loved ones than by those who are present.
1861 would also be a year of national tragedy with the start of the American Civil War. Over the course of the next 4+ years, every American family would feel the impact of this conflict. Longfellow’s family would be no different. His daughters would serve as caregivers to wounded soldiers, and in 1863 his son Charley would go against his father’s wishes and enlist in the Union army. His son would have to leave active service first because of illness and later in November of 1864, when he would be severely wounded in battle. On December 8th, Longfellow would arrive home with his son, where he knew he would spend months trying to help with his recovery.
In the midst of so much ongoing trouble and despair, it would have been expected that Longfellow could lose all hope. Depression is often a journey through a black, dense forest with very little light breaking through the darkness. On Christmas Day of 1864, Longfellow would hear the bells and be inspired to write the words above. The poem contains scenes of both hope and despair, perhaps reflecting the author’s daily struggles since the loss of his wife and in reading the news of the day related to the war. Perhaps because of the recent reelection of Lincoln or the possible nearing end of the war, Longfellow found the hope to end his poem with the words:
These recent days have been trying for us all. When we look at the news of the day it would be easy for us to proclaim that there is not peace on earth, but instead proclaim that “hate is strong”. Reviewing the interactions we see around us, we might feel right to proclaim that there is no “good will to men (or women)”. Hostility and division are common place and highlighted. We are encouraged to join man-made tribes that would define others as our enemies and undeserving of any good will.
Into this world, we once again take time to celebrate Christmas. Once again, we hear the bells of Christmas ringing. Christmas is a song that is different than what the world is singing to us. The world sings of hate and despair, division and impending doom. The message of Christmas is the message of hope. It is the message that was proclaimed to those shepherds long ago:
The angel didn’t offer hope because of the birth of a great military leader, an earthly king or a great teacher. The hope rested in a baby in a manger, who would be the fulfillment of God’s plan. The hope was not for this earth, but for eternity to come. On this earth, we see glimpses of that hope, but it is only fulfilled in the life to come. “In this world, we will have trouble.” (John 16:33) We will see wars, we will face disease, we will face loss that seems avoidable and unnecessary, and we will suffer grief that may seem impossible to face.
Putting our faith in these things will lead us to the answers of this world and will only lead us further into depression and despair. A life built on all that this world has to offer us is a very fragile life built on a house of cards. The reason the angel declared, “peace among those whom he is pleased” was that it was a peace based on the hope of a better world. It was a hope based on eternity.
How do we find this eternity? It is only found in Jesus. Today is the day when we all may find hope fulfilled through God’s son, Jesus Christ. In Romans 10 it says:
Hope comes as we look beyond ourselves and resist the temptation to put our trust in governments, people or things. These things will ultimately collapse as they are completely unable and unworthy to bear the weight of true hope. In moments of true despair, it is easy to proclaim that there is no peace on earth and no good will toward men, but God’s message is a different message. It is the message of “good tidings of great joy that will be for all people.” All people, regardless of nationality, upbringing, or present circumstances. The Gospel is a message of Hope that brings ultimate equality as all humanity, unworthy though they are, finds the secret to their ultimate value through the complete worthiness of Jesus. Today is the day of your salvation, you have but to “declare Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead.” There is no better way to celebrate Christmas.