Straining to Hear the Bells on Christmas Day

Every day in the US, 48 children (or teens) are shot. (Source)

It’s getting harder for middle class families to cut it. (Source. And counterpoint.)

The United States is no longer a democracy; rather, it is an oligarchy, ruled by a small class of economic elites. (Source 1. Source 2. And counterpoint. )

The War on Terror continues full steam, and the bodies are piling up. (Source.)

Merry Christmas, everyone!

If you take more than a cursory glance at the news, like I do, it’s easy to despair, and to feel that the traditional sentiments of this time of year are just saccharine and banal, offering little in the way of real hope.

I’ll admit that in the face of overwhelming circumstances, it’s easy to ask the big questions. What can I do? How can I make one bit of difference? What’s the point?

It should come as no surprise that I’m not the first one to ask that question. And as I’ve wrestled with it the last few weeks, there are two writings that have been significant comfort to me.

I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

The first is the Christmas carol “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” I’ll include this wonderful rendition by The Civil Wars so that you can listen to it while you read. (Or you could just stop reading and focus on the music. I’ll let you pick.)

(It’s their own arrangement and melody, FYI. So if you’re a strict traditionalist, you might want to listen to recordings by Johnny Cash or Bing Crosby, instead.)

It’s appropriate that a band called “The Civil Wars” should cover that song, since that’s when it was written. The lyrics, in fact, were written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lost his wife during the Civil War; then his son enlisted and nearly died. So you can imagine that Longfellow had some pretty strong feelings about the Civil War, and would have had much more cause to despair than I do. And that comes through in the lyrics:
http://www.ma150.org/day-by-day/1863-12-25/henry-wadsworth-longfellow-pens-christmas-bells

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 Longfellow didn’t despair. After that dark verse, he concludes the song:

Then pealed 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”

(You can read more about the story behind Longfellow’s poem in this article from the impressively named Sesquicentennial Commission of the Civil War.)

It seems simplistic, to move so quickly from cynicism to hope. But Longfellow did it, after he’d watched his wife die a painful death, and nursed his son back to life, only to see him march off to war again. He acknowledges that God is neither dead nor sleeping; and yet, pain and suffering still exist. Without attempting to solve the problem of evil Longfellow simply states that God is alive and active, implying that our expectations of God are flawed.

Aligning My Expectations with Real Hope

Which brings me to the second writing I mentioned; it’s from the New Testament of the Bible; the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians, to be specific. In the beginning of that letter, St. Paul says: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it.” (Read more of Philippians here.) Much like Longfellow might have expected “good work” would include keeping his wife alive to a ripe old age, I have many expectations of God and of life that probably won’t work out. But that doesn’t mean that there is to be no hope; it doesn’t mean that my own efforts to effect positive change in the world are pointless.

What it does mean, I think, is that I need to examine my expectations, and get to work making my world a better place. So, I’ve gone back to school so that I can learn more about my passions, and ultimately work towards my dream job (teaching). I’m trying to be a more attentive husband by writing my wife notes (she loves that) and helping around the house more. I’m trying to call my friends more regularly and be a better correspondent.

But I also am learning to pay more attention to what is being asked of me in the moment. A couple of weeks ago I was praying, and I said “God, just help me to find your will in my life today.” I thought that was a very practical prayer. But the minute the prayer had been uttered, I heard a response: “Are you even going to look for my will?”

I’m not claiming to receive visions or apparitions; that wasn’t like that. I imagine many of you have insights from time to time that seem to come from nowhere. This one was so practical that I attribute it to a more grounded intellect than my own; I’m far too frivolous to have come up with it on my own. But questions of attribution aside, the idea that I received was this: I need to actually take quiet time in my day to reflect on my time, on my actions, in order to see if God is trying to communicate with me. Because one thing I’ve learned is that God doesn’t send postcards with numbered instructions. His guidance is embedded in my experience, in the voice of my friends and family and coworkers, in some of the things I read, write, and hear. Not everything is the voice of God, certainly; but if I never pause to reflect on the things I experience, then I’m certain to miss the meaning hidden therein. So I need to make more quiet time for recollecting, recalling, and meditating, on “holding things in my heart.”

Hope in Action

So, in the face of all the darkness in the world, what’s the point? What can I do to make the world a better place? Listen carefully for opportunities, and when they present themselves, jump into the opportunities. I can’t guarantee the outcome, but the more I try, the more successes I’m going to have. On that note, I’ll leave you with a final clip, from one of my favorite inspirational films:

4 thoughts on “Straining to Hear the Bells on Christmas Day

  1. Some blogger somewhere recently posted a similar feverino*, offering the reminder that no good deed is wasted or goes unused by God. It might be a small consolation to us at the moment, but what a wonder it will be when we at last are able see the collection of unseen graces we’ve unknowingly participated in. In the meantime, one day at a time! Thanks for today’s reminder.

    *possibly the vaguest credit I can offer, but the best my memory can pull out I’m afraid

    1. In his excellent book “Encounters with Silence,” Karl Rahner taught me how to be grateful for forgetfulness and ignorance, two mysteries I’ve never been able to embrace. I’m a long ways away from wisdom, but I can at least acknowledge that the world is a much larger and more complex place than I’ll ever understand, and that’s perfectly fine. I’m looking forward to seeing the big picture someday, “further up [and] further in.” Thanks for your insight, Fr.

  2. Once again, you have so eloquently stated what has recently been on my mind.

    I’ve gotten tired of trying to explain my reasons why I don’t watch the news to people who get angry when they learn I don’t listen to it. I asked one such person if, knowing the details of the latest horror made them any happier or the world a better place. I got a very angry look as they walked away.

    The real trick, I find, is not to stand in the problem but to look for a solution. My inspiration came from Jim Henson, creator of “The Muppets.” Jim said, “Try to leave the world a little better than when how you found it.” It took a while but I chose to interpret that as any act of kindness, no matter how small, makes the world a better place.

    Christmas Eve I wasn’t feeling the holiday spirit at all. In fact, I was thinking that the Grinch was misunderstood. This was on my mind as I rolled into an underground garage at my bank. Instead of just driving by, I stopped and asked the guard how late he was working and if he would be home for Christmas. We laughed and talked for a few minutes. I realized a lot of people were working today and they were making my day easier, better, more productive. A day when most everyone would rather be home. I thanked every one of them.

    It won’t change what’s happening on the news. But at least five of us had something to smile about today. Nothing big. Just a moment of kindness and understanding.

    Another favorite saying of mine came from drummer Neil Peart. “Elevate the norm.” To me, where ever I am, stand a little taller. Not to look down on anyone but to inspire them to stand taller too.

    John, you always “elevate the norm,” my friend. And your salsa may yet change the world.

    1. “Elevate the norm” is a good one. Thank you. You were the one who introduced me to the phrase “think globally, act locally,” and that’s helped me to keep perspective when I hear something horrific on the news. Neal Peart certainly elevated the norm of percussionists! And it sounds like he’s a pretty good human being, as well.

      Thanks for sharing your story; but thank you also for trying to genuinely acknowledge the service of others on Christmas Eve.

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