God is not dead, nor does God sleep

Even two thousand years removed, the image effortlessly captures our imagination.  There is a desperate family, far from home.  There are no friendly faces, few helping hands.  The closest thing to shelter the family has been able to find is a stable behind an inn, a rough-hewn thing suitable only for animals.  We like to envision those animals as doe-eyed Disney cartoons, but in reality they, and the darkness, and the dirt mock this vulnerable family in their most vulnerable moment.  She is young, and she is scared, because the baby is coming.  He is frustrated and panicked, because he cannot figure out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced the couple’s ability to manage them.  Things are happening to them now, and all they can do is allow these things to transpire.

_______________

What an ugly year we’ve just lived:

  • One of the worst years on record for worldwide natural disasters[i], including earthquakes in Taiwan, Burma, New Zealand, and Italy, as well as devastating floods just to the east of us in Louisiana, where thirteen people were killed and thousands lost their homes.
  • Acts of terror is such locations as Nice in the south of France, which intends to be a place of unguarded rest, and, just this week, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Square in Berlin, which exists as a monument to the very futility of violence.
  • An election cycle that brought out the very worst in us.
truck-attack-nice-france

Aftermath of the terror attack in Nice, France, July 14, 2016

Perhaps the Nativity story still so captures us because its anxiety, frustration, and panic are emotions with which we can relate.  We’re having trouble figuring out how to make things safe and right.  Events have outpaced our ability to manage them.  Things are happening to us, and we can’t seem to do anything but allow them to transpire.

_______________

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is, perhaps, America’s greatest poet.[ii]  He was born in 1807 of solid colonial stock and to means that allowed him to travel the world before adulthood.  He studied languages and taught first at Bowdoin College and then Harvard.  Through his work, Longfellow was celebrated and enjoyed both fame and great monetary reward.  And then in 1861, as happened to all Americans, events outpaced the ability to manage them.  The Civil War erupted from the nation’s cauldron of sectional resentment.  Then, two months after the firing on Fort Sumter, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s wife and the mother of his six children struck a match that accidentally caught her dress on fire.  Despite Longfellow’s attempts to put out the flames with his own body, his wife died.  His own face was so scarred with burns that he wore a heavy beard for the rest of his life.

Less than two years later, Longfellow’s eldest son, Charles, volunteered to join the Union Army.  Charles was commissioned a Second Lieutenant, and in late November he was shot through the shoulder, with the bullet skimming his spine.  Charles was very nearly paralyzed. Henry Longfellow tended to his son during a long and difficult recuperation.  For the second time in as many years, Longfellow was frustrated and panicked, because he could not figure out how to make things safe and right for those he loved.  Things were happening to them, and all Longfellow could seem to do was allow those things to transpire.

longfellow

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

And then, on the morning of that December 25, in the midst of his uncertainty and despair, Longfellow heard the sound of Cambridge’s church bells ringing sharply into the air of Christmas Day.  Their peal was clear.  It pierced through the gloom of grief and wound and war to proclaim that something else, some counterbalance, was at work in the world.  Longfellow moved swiftly to his writing desk, and he penned in that moment the beloved poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The poem begins with joy, but its power endures one hundred-fifty years later because unlike so many other Christmas poems and songs, it is not syrupy or maudlin.  Longfellow does not use the Nativity as a gauzy screen to mask the difficulties of life.  Almost as soon as he begins, the gloom resettles.  The poem goes on:

Then from each black accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound
The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

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!”

Existentially and emotionally, Henry Longfellow has taken us back to Bethlehem, to the stable, to the moments in the midst of Mary’s labor when so much can go so horribly wrong, just as everything else has gone wrong for her and for Joseph on that day.

nativity-caravaggio

The Nativity, by Caravaggio (1609)

But then, the child emerges.  He is born, and with him something enters the world as clear and true as the Cambridge bells in the morning air.  The baby cries, as babies do.  The heavens open, and the angels sing to the shepherds, who are struggling with their own nightmares.  In this most unassuming of ways, in this common miracle made cosmically uncommon, God enters our world, alive and awake.

Back in Cambridge, the second peal of the bells scatters Longfellow’s desperate haze.  Almost by surprise, hope is born anew in him.  He doesn’t understand it, but he cannot but proclaim it:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: 
“God is not dead; nor doth [God] sleep!
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!”

Here, at the end of 2016, a year we would just as soon forget, we don’t understand it.  But here, in the wee hours of this morning, hope is born anew in us.  The peal is clear.  It may appear that events in the world are merely transpiring, but in truth God is not dead, nor does God sleep.  God is born into this world.  Hope lives!  Peace on earth, dear friends, good will to all.  And Merry Christmas.

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[i] http://www.aol.com/article/weather/2016/12/09/the-worst-natural-disasters-of-2016/21623406/

[ii] For more details of the story that follows, see Ace Collins’ Stories Behind the Best-Loved Songs of Christmas (Zondervan: Grand Rapids, MI, 2001) and https://blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2014/12/21/the-story-of-pain-and-hope-behind-i-heard-the-bells-on-christmas-day/.

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One thought on “God is not dead, nor does God sleep

  1. Yes, it has been a deeply unsettling year, and the future is very unclear. For the second year in a row, circumstances have conspired to keep me from attending church with my family on Christmas Eve. Reading these thoughtful, uplifting words while my loved ones are hearing them in church turns my pity party into a moment of peaceful solitude, and I appreciate them very much. Thank you for these and all the other inspiring words you have shared with us throughout the year. Merry Christmas!

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