These notes are intended for distribution to members and friends of the Kirk of Kildaire Presbyterian Church family. While effort is made to give credit for work done by others, the notes may use material for which appropriate credit is not given. Also, the notes may differ from the actual sermon as it was delivered. Remember, sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation; the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
The words he wrote in his diary were words that I’m imagining a whole town of people in Newtown, Massachusetts – the grieving families, the teachers, administrators, and workers… are writing in their journals or thinking in their own way…
The words Henry wrote the first Christmas after his wife Fanny died were these: “How inexpressibly sad are all the holidays”.
The grief was so deep, a year later- the next Christmas he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.”
You can hardly blame Henry as we would not blame anyone in Newtown or anyone experiencing tragedy for feeling that way.
Fanny was his second wife who died. His first wife Mary died during a miscarriage. Fanny was putting some locks of her children’s hair in an envelope and attempting to seal it with hot sealing wax… her dress suddenly caught fire and she died.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the great American poet, knew more than his share of grief.
As if that were not enough, on another Christmas day, 1864, he received word that his son, a soldier in the Civil War, and been wounded. Had he not been through enough already? He had just lost Fanny two years earlier.
That is when he composed the poem, Christmas bells, which became the song, “I heard a Bell on Christmas day”.
The song starts out with such hope and beauty and the comfort of Christmas we’ve come to expect:
CHANCEL CHOIR SINGS FIRST VERSE!
“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!”
CHOIR CONCLUDES SINGING
As you know the song continues…
And thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along the unbroken song
Of peace on earth good will to men!
“Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth good will too men!”
But then the song suddenly turns as reality sets in. Longfellow embraces the dark pain within him and around him. The first two of these next verses so dark, they are not even included in the carol as we sing it today:
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 hearthstones 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 not peace on Earth, “ I said;
For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
I think the shepherds would understand how he felt. The world the shepherds lived in knew little of peace and much despair. Oh, the government proclaimed peace, the Pax Romana established by Augustus who was hailed as savior…
He was savior because he was quick to put down protestors, little wars, and kept the Jews in their place. Rome used power, force, terror and coercion to keep the peace. So, I guess it was a time of peace if you were a Roman.
But for the Jews and many others who had to make compromises to keep the peace, or for shepherds who had no say in the matter because they were at the bottom of the social ladder… the hard workers, the blue collar workers, who struggled to live…there was little real peace.
There was no peace for Mary and Joseph after Jesus was born. Insecure Herod orders all the infants to be killed just in case one had been born to be king.
Luke tells us, it was to such people, the Lord sends a message through his angels: “Do not be afraid; for see- I am bringing you good news of great joy for ALL people; to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord… “
Jesus was to be that savior for them and all the world—the savior who gives hope to all those who feel defeated. Who will offer a peace that passes all understanding.
Jesus comes to save us from many things, not the least of which is our despair and sense of hopelessness.
That message came through to Longfellow. I wonder if it came to him as he wrote his poem. For there, after that dark verse of despair breaks through a ray of hope:
“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.
Christians believe that to be true because Jesus is our Savior… who saves us from so much… not the least of which is our despair and our hopelessness.
This word has meant a lot to me this week. It’s been a tough week in so many ways.The Clelands and I lost a friend this week: Jenny Russell, a Presbyterian minister whose husband Feild is also a pastor. She and Feild had been the Clelands’ pastors. I had served with Feild and Jenny in the same Presbytery years ago. Some of the nicest people I know. Too young. About a week ago, she died unexpectedly. I’ve been thinking of them all week. What must this Advent look like to them? To Feild and their kids.
Then there is that senseless shooting and so many, so many victims in Newtown… What does Advent and Christmas look like to them?
Longfellow would know. He faced a few of them.
And so would Jesus. Which is why we are looking to Jesus, our savior, to help them through this. For this very reason, Jesus was born to help, to save.
I was reading an account of the shooting yesterday. Yvone Cech, a librarian had locked herself, an assistant and 18 fourth graders in a closet behind file cabinets while they heard the gunshots outside. They saw next to nothing as they waited in silence.The shooting finally stopped. Most teachers kept the children frozen in hiding. Some 15 minutes later there was another sound coming from the intercom. It had been on the whole time. A voice said, “It’s okay. It’s safe now.”
Brendan, in the gym said, “Then someone came and told us to run down the hallway… the officers led children past the carnage. They said, “Close your eyes hold hands” as they led them to safety and comforted them.
Today, I hear a voice speaking to us, “It’s okay.” I see someone ready to hold us by the hand and lead us through this to a better place and a better day… to remind us we are not all alone on our own,
For to you and to me, and to all people,
A Savior is born for such a day as this,
One who comes to lift your burden from your shoulders,
One who comes to wipe the tears from your eyes.
One who promises to be with you even to the end of the age…
You are not alone, for to us He is born this day. Christ the savior is born. Amen.