In Despair I Bowed My Head…

I woke up on Friday morning with the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Christmas poem in my head.  It is one of my favorite Christmas songs.  The words are deep and heartfelt.

Unlike many songs associated with the season, it was not written out of a joyful or happy experience.  Longfellow had a long history of sadness and depression at Christmastime.  In July 1861, he failed to save his wife from a horrible death from fire, severely injuring himself in the process.  He sank into depression and wrote that first Christmas after his wife’s death, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.”

His journal contains many of these sentiments.  “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence.  Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”  Christmas 1862 contains these thoughts: “A ‘merry Christmas,’ say the children.  But that is no more for me.'”

The following year, as the country was deep in the throes of the Civil War, he found out his oldest son, Charles, a lieutenant in the Army of the Potomac, had been severely wounded with a debilitating spinal injury.  That Christmas, his journal was silent.  His depression and sadness around the season was too great for words.

Christmas 1864 saw a new poem from Longfellow, however.  Entitled Christmas Bells, it contained all the anger and despair he had felt since the loss of his beloved wife and the injury to his son.

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.

Not exactly cheery words for a Christmas poem.  There is little of home and hearth, and the imagery is of a solitary person, hearing distant bells that repeat a song he cannot appreciate or relate to.  His heart cannot respond to the joyful peal of the bells–overcome with emotion, he lets out all his anger and sadness in one biting phrase.

Why did this song stir in my heart on the day a lone person, intent on violence, murdered 26 innocent people, including 20 children the same age as my youngest daughter?

Probably for the same reason they stirred in my heart 11 Christmases ago, as I sought to reconcile the message of Christmas with September 11th and its impact on the national consciousness.  How do we reconcile the message of peace on earth, goodwill to men, with the death and destruction wrought by men of evil intent?

Longfellow’s words speak what every parent in America felt upon seeing and hearing what had happened at Sandy Hook Elementary.  There is no peace on earth.  Hate is strong and mocks the song of the angels.

Every innocent life, every child or teacher whose lives were taken so cruelly on that dark day, is heard in Longfellow’s cry.  His own life of despair and loss is felt in the heart of every person who sees the faces of the innocent victims and wonders, “What about peace on earth, goodwill to men?”

Ultimately, though, Longfellow’s poem doesn’t end in despair.  And truly, our hearts don’t need to stay there, either.  We may not understand the loss, we may not be able to reconcile the awfulness of that day with the brightness of the season, but we don’t have to.  We can mourn.  We can grieve.  But the message of Christmas is that no matter where we are, no matter what we face, no matter how dark the moment has become, God is with us.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep,
“God isnot dead, nor doth He sleep!
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
with peace on earth, goodwill to men.

The light of Emmanuel, the God who is with us, ultimately shone brightly for Longfellow.  God is not dead, He doesn’t sleep, and as The Bible says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the dark shall not overcome it.”  Evil may have its moment, but it will not win. God is alive, He is here, and only He can restore hearts that are broken, only He can bring back the hope that we feel is lost.

My hope and prayer for all of us, as we reflect on what was lost at Sandy Hook, is that we remember God is not dead.  He doesn’t sleep.  Emmanuel is here, and only He can replace despair with hope.  Only He is strong enough to carry the heaviest burdens of your heart.

And only in Him will we find “peace on earth, goodwill to men.”

Here is my favorite version of the song, which truly gives the words the depth and beauty they deserve.

One response to “In Despair I Bowed My Head…

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