Wednesday, December 26, 2012

German bells resonate hope, peace, and goodwill

It’s that wonderful time of the year to dust off the ole Christmas music and that’s what filled my car and office this entire month. I had forgotten a certain song that I fell in love with two years ago, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
Theatine Church in Munich
The modern version recorded by the Christian group, Casting Crowns, is now one of my all-time favorite Christmas songs. When I started up last year’s Christmas playlist on my computer this song was one of the first I heard. As I listened to the words, I was really taken by surprise at the whole new meaning they had for me.

Last November, I was sitting by a café in a lovely plaza near the beautiful Theatine Church (Theatinerkirche) in Munich, Germany and the bells were ringing out loud, clear, and pure. I had heard bells on and off throughout my time in Europe: unexpected bells resounding at a monastery in a friend’s hometown and then a long gorgeous performance from the bells of Salzburger Dom (Cathedral) in Salzburg, Austria while I was perched high on the Salzburg Castle walls overlooking the city dotted with sparkling lights at twilight.
Listening to the bells
This time in Munich though I sat listening, really listening to the bells…as carefully now as I listen to the words of this song. “I heard the bells on Christmas day/Their old familiar carols play/And mild and sweet their songs repeat/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/But the bells are ringing/Like a choir singing/Does anybody hear them?/Peace on earth, good will to men.

Then rang 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/Then 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…Do you hear the bells they're ringing?/The life the angels singing/Open up your heart and hear them/Peace on earth, good will to men…”

The famous American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, penned the words nearly 150 years ago…and they resonate with me as they must have through him then. It was December 25, 1864 and the American Civil War was still raging on and would continue for over three months more. Our country was torn apart with little hope of repair and Longfellow’s grief over the war extended to the loss of his beloved wife, Fanny, in 1861 at the war’s start.
Fanny had been melting wax with a candle and a few drops fell unnoticed on her dress. A sudden breeze swept in through the window and set her lightweight dress into immediate flames. To protect her daughters, she fled to her husband’s study next door and he frantically tried to extinguish the flames with a rug. The attempt failed, so he threw his arms around her to stop them, which only caused him severe injuries as well. Fanny died the next morning and Longfellow was unable to attend her funeral due to the burns and his deep sorrow at her loss.

The first Christmas after her death, Longfellow wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the accident, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” He then received news that his oldest son, Charles, had been severely wounded as a lieutenant in the Union army, therefore he wrote nothing for Christmas 1863.
Another View of the Theatine Church in Munich
But in 1864, he wrote these famous words…words of deep sorrow, but also of hope. Hope that there would be better days in the future and that “wrong shall fail, the right prevail” and of God being in his midst even through tragedy and unrest in a war-torn world. “God is not dead; nor doth He sleep” and that there truly is hope for “peace on earth, good will to men.”

As I remembered the bells I heard and I thought about the words of this poem, the bells to me became symbolic of God’s presence with us on Earth. In Europe, the bells resound all the time and only few people stop to listen…yet they still ring often. It’s like with God—we take His presence in our lives for granted, but He’s there trying to get our attention, to reverberate through our hearts and minds like the pure and clear sound of the bells.

As with Longfellow’s great tragedy and uncertain chaos that surrounded him, the bells were symbols of peace and hope that God will prevail and we shall find peace even if our world is falling apart. That’s what the Christmas season is all about: peace, hope and remembrance of God’s love. Love for us that was great enough that He sent Jesus Christ to offer salvation to a world in chaos. He’s the bell resounding through the night that beckons, calling us to peace…and to me that is worth celebrating every day.

Has there been a song that's spoken to your heart this holiday season? Was it a reminder of something important?

“For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given and the government shall be upon His shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end. He will reign upon the throne of David and over His Kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from henceforth and forever…” (Isaiah 9:6-7)

“Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth peace, good will toward men.” (Luke 2:14)


  1. Thanks for sharing the Longfellow story! It makes the song more meaningful.

    1. Thanks for reading, Tina! :) Hope you have a Happy New Year!

  2. This is a beautiful post, Morgan--this song has actually come up for me a lot this Christmas, though I didn't really know it well before. I was listening to it on a CD at the moment when I first read the news about the tragedy in CT, and then I've heard it or read allusions to it several times since--it always helps me see things a little more from God's perspective, but I love the way you've expanded on it. Another one that has often ministered to me when hard things come up at Christmastime is "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman"--when I was younger, I thought the comma came before "merry," but later learned it means "God keep you merry"--and then the rest of the words make lots of sense why we can "let nothing us dismay." Blessings to you!

    1. Thanks, Kiersti! :)

      Sometimes the most well known songs can still surprise us with meaning. That's so neat about "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentleman." I didn't realize the comma either. Wow.

      Thanks for sharing! Have a Happy New Year! :)