I can say without hyperbole that 2016 changed me. I'm glad it changed me. I would be disturbed if I had remained unchanged by the outcome and the conclusions we were forced to draw as a result of that election. There is no unlearning what we learned about gender, about race, and about fear.
This was written then, in the midst of these changes. It came from a dark place, but, through it, I found light.
It was 1863 when Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote Christmas Bells, the poem from which the Christmas carol I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day takes its lyrics. He wrote it on Christmas morning, as the Civil War raged. His wife, Fanny Longfellow, had just died, very suddenly. The month before, personal tragedy crossed paths with the national one when his oldest son, Charles, a member of the Union force, was severely wounded in the Battle of New Hope Church in Virginia. So, that December morning, Longfellow had much to contemplate when he wrote the poem we know so well.
With the advantage of time we know that things worked out, but the war would thunder on another year and a half after that December morning. There was no precedent for the severity of division that America faced, and whether America would ever be united again—in idea or actuality— was far from certain. At this moment, December 25, 1863, America was truly a nation divided.
In a stanza of the poem not included in the hymn, it reads,
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearthstones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men.
We, too, live in a world that feels divided. You can’t swing a holly wreath these days without coming upon a news story that demonstrates that hate is, indeed, very strong.
My daughter and I were singing We Wish You a Merry Christmas the other day, and I explained that when we sing Good tidings we bring, it means good news. Good news we bring. She liked that idea, and asked for some good news.
And in despair I bowed my head.
At this time of year, when the decorations are up and the lights are lit—when I should feel the most joyful—I earnestly felt that I had no good news to give her.
To some degree, that’s true. Good news of the standard variety can be hard to come by. But as I really thought about it, I realized that there is a fundamental flaw to my fear. No matter how bleak life sometimes feels, there is always good news to be had. It is the Savior. It is His birth, which we celebrate this month. And it is the totality of his life and message. Jesus Christ lived his whole earthly life in the shadow of fear and the hate that fear engendered, disagreement and willful misunderstanding. His sacrifice made, it ended in the same way.
And yet, the Roman empire fell, the Union remained intact, and here we stand, on this day, two thousand and six years after the birth of Jesus Christ, celebrating that very miracle. We sit here tonight as living proof of Longfellow’s words,
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
Belief in the Savior does not mean that we can abdicate the responsibility of caring about the world around us. Henry and Fanny Longfellow were abolitionists and agitators for change, and Longfellow continued to hope for unity for the United States. In 1878, he wrote in his journal, “I have only one desire, and that is for harmony, and a frank and honest understanding between the North and South.”
What our belief in Jesus Christ allows us is relief from despair. To look upon the cares of the world with hope in our hearts. With true charity, which is the love of Christ, in our hearts. In this way, no matter how grave the times, there will always have good news to share.
When Samuel the Laminite prophesied of the birth of Christ, he told the Nephites that it will occur in about five years. He told them that there would be a day and a night and a day, as if it were one day and there were no night. He told them that there will be a new star, one that they had never before seen. I imagine that, during those five years, true believers often looked heavenward, searching for that star, awaiting the day and the night and the day that would signal the birth of the long-awaited Savior of the World. The day we celebrate is marked on my calendar, but, when I truly stop to consider that the good tidings of Christ’s birth signify the most important event of human existence—the birth of the savior who would atone for my sins—I know in my heart that I should not approach that day with any less anticipation than those believers, looking heavenward.