"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!"
The Nativity of Jesus
Revised Common Lectionary Gospel Reading
Luke 2:1-7, 8-20 (Inclusive Bible)
"In those days, in order to assess taxes, Caesar Augustus published a decree ordering a census of the whole of the Roman world. This first census took place while Quirinius was Governor of Syria. All the people were ordered to go back to the towns of their birth to be registered on the tax rolls. And so Joseph went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to "the City of David" otherwise known as Bethlehem, in Judea, because Joseph was of the house and lineage of David; he went to register with Mary, to whom he was engaged to be married, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her delivery. Mary gave birth to her first born child, a son; she put him in a simple cloth wrapped like a receiving blanket, and laid him in a feeding trough which was used to feed cattle, because there was not any room for them at the inn. There were shepherds living in the fields in the same area keeping night watch by turns over their collective flocks. A heavenly being of God appeared to them and God's brilliant glory surrounded them; and they were very much afraid. God's heavenly being said to them, "You have nothing to fear! I have come to proclaim good news to you! News of great joy! News to be shared by the whole people! Today in David's City a savior - the Messiah - has been born for you! Let this be a sign for you: You'll find the baby wrapped in simple cloth and laying in a feeding trough." Suddenly there was a multitude of God's heavenly beings who were all praising God and saying, "Glory to God in God's high heaven! And on earth let there be peace on all those on whom God's favor rests!" When the heavenly beings returned to their realm, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go directly to Bethlehem! Let us see this event which God has made known to us!" They hurried to find Mary and Joseph, and the baby, just as they had been told, laying in a feeding trough. Once they saw this, they reported everything the heavenly beings had told them concerning the child. All who heard them were astonished at the words of the shepherds. Mary, however, treasured all these things and reflected on them in her heart. The shepherds went away glorifying God and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told."
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (December 25th, 1864)
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.
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."
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!"
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
I don't particularly preference using the labels "secular," "non-secular," "religious," etc., in terms of music. I feel that music need not particularly carry the designation label of being "religious" in order to speak to us on a spiritual level. Although, something of a more frivolous nature - something like Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer - may not, in and of itself, have a deep spiritual significance or carry a profound message of theological importance; there is, however, no denying that the need for the human spirit to have times of laughter and joy is as important as is our need to feed our souls. In the same way, anyone who is not moved when hearing a recording of Karen Carpenter's angelic voice singing Merry Christmas, Darling would indeed have to be a very Grinch-like individual!
Particular songs which carry Christmas seasonal religious messages are referred to as carols so as to designate their unique standing among Christian hymns. Songs such as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen; Away in a Manger; Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem; and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, just to name a few, were composed in specificity as distinct Christmas hymns. One popular Christmas carol, however, Issac Watts' Joy to the World, was not originally written to be used as a Christmas carol. Watts actually wrote the hymn as a theological reference regarding the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. None the less, it was adapted by Christianity as a Christmas carol and thus it stays in perpetuity.
Having spent most of my life in the religious tradition of Southern Evangelicalism, testifying, or giving one's testimony, was a large component of this religious paradigm and the Christmas season was always a major motivator for individuals offering up testimonies. People would stand up in the services on the Sundays prior to Christmas and recount how particular Christmas carols were spiritually significant to their faith journey. Away in a Manger and Silent Night were always the Christmas carols that brought tears to the eyes of the faithful. Courses of "Amen" and "Thank you, Jesus" always followed the singing of these particular carols and the ensuing testimonies which would recount how God had used these carols to "touch my heart and bring me closer to Jesus."
For a large part of my life Christmas carols, as well as Christmas itself, was not something to which I looked forward. As a small child I did relish the magic of Christmas - the lights and decorations, the presents - as I matured, however, Christmas quickly became something I just hoped to be able to endure. Each year I dreaded the time between Thanksgiving and New Year. If I could have found a genie in a lamp and been granted three wishes, one of them would have been to relieve me of the burden of the Christmas holiday season. Unlike others who dread the holidays because they do not desire to spend time with their families, for me, this was not the case. What I dreaded about the Christmas holiday season was the societal imprint of heteronormativity which accompanies the season. As a deeply closeted and self loathing gay man, who was terrified (in every sense of the word) of having my secret sexuality discovered, I did not have the freedom to express my innate self in regard to the festivities which surround Christmas as does most of Western/North American heteronormative culture. I did not, nor could not, ask or bring the person to whom I was intimately drawn to my Christmas party at work or to the Christmas parties to which I received invitations. I was not able to share the joy of shopping for someone I loved. There was no one for whom I could place an intimate gift of love under the Christmas tree to be opened on Christmas morning. There was no one for me to kiss under the mistletoe.
It was the Christmas of my 13th year when I first heard - or remember hearing - the carol whose words were originally composed in the form of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. If I had heard this carol sung either in our church, or elsewhere for that matter, prior to my 13th Christmas, it either did not have any impact on me or else I had forgotten it completely. That Christmas, however, as we sang this carol in the Sunday evening church service just prior to Christmas day, the words washed over me like an ocean wave. The words reverberated in my mind and soul as loudly as did the bells Longfellow had heard on the Christmas day in 1864 when he was moved to write his poem. Longfellow had been deeply impacted by the events surrounding his life in 1864: The United States was still in the midst of the horror of the Civil War and Longfellow had personally been closely impacted by the war as a few months prior to Christmas his son had been killed in the war. Additionally, just a few weeks prior to Christmas, Longfellow's wife had died as the result of an accidental house fire. On Christmas day in 1864, Longfellow, feeling overwhelmed by the depression which engulfed him, had gone for a walk through the streets of Cambridge, Massachusetts. As he was walking he began to notice the church bells of the churches of Cambridge ringing loudly to announce Christmas. As he writes in his poem, Longfellow did not share the Christmas message of Peace in that the Civil War was being fought on bloody battlefields, his son had been killed on one of those battlefields, and his wife had recently died. It was, however, as he continued his walk that the Spirit of the Divine spoke to his soul on that Christmas morning and he began to find a glimmer of Divine hope:
"Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
'God is not dead, nor doth God sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men!'"
It was at that time that the words of Longfellow, set to music in the form of a Christmas hymn, become my favorite Christmas carol. I am often asked as I share my story "Why didn't you just throw down your religion? What made you hold on to it through out all of those dark years of oppression?" My answer is that I, like Longfellow, had the Spirit of the Divine speak to my soul and although the dark events which surrounded me continued, I somehow knew in my soul that God was not dead and that neither was God asleep. The soft, gentle voice of God spoke to my soul and I knew that no matter what words of hate were hurled at same gender loving individuals from the pulpits of Christendom, God was not pleased with these hate filled expressions in God's name. Although at the time I did not have anyone with whom I could share my hope, I knew in my soul that I was not denounced or abandoned by God. I knew in my soul that I was loved by God and approved of by God. I knew that if there were an abomination it was not I, it was the words of hate wrapped in the name of Jesus - Jesus whose birth we celebrate - which were the abomination.
At the time that Longfellow penned the words of his poem, he did not know that in a few months the American Civil War would be concluded with the surrender of Lee to Grant at Appomattox Court House in far away Virginia. As I heard the words of Longfellow and felt encouraged by the Spirit of God to hold onto hope, I could not envision a time that same gender loving individuals would win freedoms to join in unions, to be able to live together, in some places, openly, or to, in some places, openly hold jobs and live their lives with any measure of freedom. These things were beyond my comprehension, yet, within my life time, I have seen that "the wrong shall fail and the right shall prevail!" Change is slow in occurring, yet I cannot abandon the hope that more change is on the way and that, with God's approval, justice will be forthcoming.
My Christmas prayer for my same gender loving family around the world is that you do not give up hope! No matter how dark the time, no matter how oppressive the circumstances, I pray that you may come to know in the name of God who created you, in the name of God who loves you and in the name of God who approves of you; that the Spirit of the Divine may touch your soul, and that you may know that "God is not dead nor doth God sleep!"
"I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day!"