December 25, 2015
St. Margaret/ Parish, Bel Air
I Heard the Bells
One hundred and fifty-two years ago, Christmas of 1863, our nation was deeply divided by the Civil War.
On that Christmas, the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was feeling very down. He was worried about our country and about his son who had been wounded in battle.
With those feelings, Longfellow scribbled these words: “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 all.’”
Very soon after writing these words, Longfellow heard the sound of bells from a nearby church. And the peeling of those bells suddenly awakened his hope.
So, in a matter of minutes, Longfellow rewrote his words: “Then peeled 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 all.’”
As you know, Longfellow’s words became our popular Christmas carol, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.
I Heard the Word
Those bells reminded Longfellow of God and of what Christmas is all about.
They awakened his faith and hope. They helped him to see the possibilities that Christmas proclaims.
Tonight, the Scripture readings – like the bells – awaken our faith and hope in the possibilities that the birth of Jesus brings.
A Possibility: Reverence for Human Life
For starters, tonight’s gospel proclaims that God has taken on our humanity in the birth of Jesus.
God now works and is present in and through our humanity. In this way, God has made it clear just how sacred human life is.
And so, Christmas lifts up the possibility of living with reverence for the life and dignity of each person. This is so important for our day and age.
For example, Christmas moves us to provide thoughtful care to our aging parents or grandparents. It moves us to be sensitive to the life of the unborn and to all children who need a secure environment.
And Christmas moves us to do what we can to alleviate the suffering maybe of a troubled teen in our family or maybe, on a bigger scale, of desperate refugees from Syria. Christmas lifts up this possibility of living with reverence for human life.
A Possibility: Respect for Differences
And then, tonight’s gospel tells about shepherds coming to the manger in Bethlehem.
A few verses after this passage, we hear that three wise men from the East also come to see the newborn Savior. In this way, Jesus draws to himself the poor, uneducated shepherds from nearby, and the wealthy, educated wise men from a distant land.
And so, Christmas lifts up the possibility of living with a respect for differences. This again is so important for our day and age.
For example, Christmas moves us to affirm the differences in children and teens, with some of them good at sports and others good at music, with some going to college and others going to technical school. Christmas also moves us to accept differences in religion or race or culture.
This year especially, it moves us Christians to resist stereotyping and work at understanding our Muslim brothers and sisters. Christmas lifts up this possibility of living with respect for differences.
And so, tonight, this Christmas of 2015, may we allow the bells of Christmas and our Christmas gospel to awaken our faith and hope.
May they awaken us to the possibilities that the birth of Jesus proclaims.