Text: Luke 2:8-14 (KJV)
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
In 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the words to a Christmas Carol that is a little less commonly known, but has recently become one of my favourites–“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” The theme of the song is Peace on Earth, taken from the passage we just heard from Luke 2.
The first verse of the song says:
I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
and wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth goodwill to men
I searched to find out how bells relate to peace, hoping there was some symbolic connection or historical significance that tied the two together. But in fact, I found the opposite: During World War II in the UK all bell ringing in churches was banned except for the purpose of sending a warning signal when the town was being invaded by the enemy. Hardly a symbol of peace.
Church bells, from what I have read, may have actually originated from the Pagan religion—which is the case for many of our Christian and Christmas traditions. Bells, apparently, were rung to keep evil spirits away. This is not quite the connection to ‘peace’ that I had in mind.
But there is something about bells that can speak to us today about Peace on Earth, and peace in our lives.
In the Message paraphrase of the bible, the word ‘peace’ is often replaced with the word ‘whole’ or ‘wholeness.’ And when I looked at synonyms for ‘wholeness’ I found such words as ‘completeness,’ and ‘unity.’
In church tradition bells are rung in the church for various reasons—to remind people to pray, to indicate that a service was soon beginning, to signify important life events such as weddings, and funerals. So the bells on Christmas Day, as the carol suggests, have a way of bringing people together, in wholeness of life, completeness, and unity.
The angels announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus, and their song was “14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
Verse 3 of Longfellow’s song says:
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 goodwill to men.
Longfellow writes in this verse perhaps what many of us are thinking now, as we ponder the angels’ song in Luke: Where is this peace?
Isaiah foretold Jesus’ birth and said he would be the Prince of Peace. The angels sang about it and the scriptures promise it to us. But when we watch the news or read the paper, we become alarmingly aware of the lack of peace in our world. We become aware of the lack of peace in our own country that at times experiences violence. And this can be brought much closer to home, since many times people experience a lack of peace amongst family members. Or a lack of peace within themselves.
Where is the peace? Where is the Prince of Peace? Can we experience peace today? Peace on Earth? Peace in our lives?
The answer may not be in the bells themselves so much as in the way they are rung.
If you have ever seen a handbell choir, you have witnessed the way in which the oldest traditions of church bell ringing took place—with each person being responsible for one or two bells out of the set, which must be hit at the right time in the sequence of notes to make a song.
Recently my two children participated in a handbell choir. Their little Sunday School class presented a rendition of Silent Night. If one can get past the irony of a group of children age two and up with bells, playing a song called “Silent Night,” it is actually an amazing sight to behold. My youngest is only two years old—the youngest in the group—and he was given the orange bell. He only had two notes to ring in the entire song, but when the orange card was lifted up by his teacher who was standing just in front of the stage, he proudly rang that bell and contributed his part of “Silent Night.” My daughter, who is four, was a little caught off guard by the excitement of the audience in front of her, but despite me having to whisper to her several times “Light blue! Light blue!” she also added her notes in with the other children to create the beautiful melody.
Like the bell-ringers, for us to experience wholeness or completeness or unity—peace—in our lives, we need to just focus on getting one note right.
So often our lives and our minds are filled with so much clutter. But the song of the angels who proclaimed Jesus’ birth was one of Peace for all mankind—through Jesus Christ.
When we take the focus off the clutter—the things in our lives that seem to compete for our attention, the things that pervade our thoughts—and instead focus on Christ, we can experience peace in our lives.
Paul speaks about this in Phil. 4:6-7: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Verse 4 of the carol says:
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 goodwill to men.
God is not dead. God has not fallen asleep. He did not forget about peace.
Isaiah 26:4-3 says, to the Lord: “thou will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on thee.”
God offers that peace to us today, just as he did at Jesus’ birth. And if everyone focused on that one thing—Christ—each person would contribute to their part in the melody—the melody of unity. The melody of Peace on earth.