December 16, 2022

Be Our Guest / Mary Ann Etling

I hope you hear the bells this Christmas season

Mary Ann EtlingI was sitting in Mass last year at this time in Christ the King Church in Indianapolis. Though as I write this today on Gaudete Sunday, I am many miles away attending Mass in a small village in western Kenya, I am reminded of the story the parish’s then-pastor, Father Todd Riebe—wearing rose-colored vestments symbolizing joy—shared about a 19th-century poet named Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

He told us that Longfellow had unexpectantly lost his wife Frances in a fire while she was warming wax to seal envelopes. Shortly after her death, his son, Charley, enlisted in the 1st Massachusetts Artillery to serve as a soldier in the Civil War. While on the frontlines, Charley suffered a nearly fatal gunshot wound. Longfellow traveled to the hospital in Washington, D.C., to bring Charley home and nurse him back to health.

On Christmas morning of 1863, Longfellow woke up and, in his deep depression, wrote what would become the poem and hymn, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” As I got into the car to drive home from Mass, I typed it in on Spotify. The top result was a rendition by the musical group Casting Crowns. I could not recommend it more.

It begins, “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 … .”

Admiring the beautiful homes adorned with Christmas lights as I drove, I was reminded of the familiar traditions and words we recite every year. Even now living in Kenya, I am witnessing new traditions and reminded that the Advent season and Christmas are universal.

Later, the tone in the hymn shifts: “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!’ ”

I thought about Longfellow. How could he believe in “peace on Earth” amid a raging war outside his home? How could he trust in “goodwill to men” with the loss of his wife and the injury of his son? Are these just empty, false promises of words? How can we possibly rejoice when our lives and the lives of our neighbors are marked by undeniable human suffering?

The song concludes, “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.’ ”

Longfellow knew that his own suffering and the suffering of his neighbors would not be the end. He believed in something greater: peace, goodwill, a baby born in a stable to redeem our broken world. Perhaps the joy we are longing for is not based on our circumstances, but in the very reason we celebrate Christmas every year.

I keep listening to this song, reflecting on the priest’s words, and telling people about Longfellow. I was unsure as to why I was so captivated by this story until I realized that our world needs this story.

This year may have been marked by suffering for you, for those in your community or for our neighbors far away. But Longfellow reminds us to cling to God, who prevails through every situation, no matter how dark, and brings about a joy that transcends.

This Christmas season, I hope that no matter where you are, you can hear the bells, too.

(Mary Ann Etling is a fourth-year medical student at Indiana University School of Medicine.) †

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