I heard the bells on Christmas day

Few phrases echo as persistently through the Christmas season as the song of the angels with its blessing of peace in a dark and troubled world. Two thousand years ago, just as today, people knew that peace on earth is the ultimate wish. Sometimes it is the sword, sometimes illness, sometimes it’s cruelty that attacks us, but the casualty is always peace.

Jesus’ mother treasures this song in her heart, but within a few days she is told, “a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:35). The presence of the sword hangs over the Advent alongside the angels’ song. In 1863, in the middle of the U.S. civil war, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote his famous “Christmas Bells” poem about the promise and its seeming dissonance.

Twine of joy and sorrow

But it’s not dissonance. It’s a twine of joy and sorrow that winds its way through Scripture. We see this twine as the returning Israelites of Ezra’s time gather to watch the rebuilding of the temple foundation. As the stones are being laid, the older priests and those who had seen the former temple weep aloud. They know that this rebuilt temple will be a mere shadow of a lost glory. Meanwhile, others shout for joy at the new beginning, and “no one [can] distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping” (Ezra 3:11–13).

That mixture of joy and weeping, often indistinguishable, paints a picture we know only too well: the concurrent sound of Christmas bells and the cannons of war.

This fall, even as the world celebrated 33 Chilean miners being drawn from what could have been their tomb, more than 200 other miners were trapped in China with fading hope of rescue and no media spotlight. We were reminded that 2,600 miners died last year in China alone. Sometimes the swing between good and tragic news can give us whiplash.

And often, even when we’re not confronted with calamity, as in Ezra’s day the good we see falls short. A heavy blanket of sadness hangs over us, robs our joy, and suggests that the angels’ song is just an illusion.

But those who heard and continue to hear the angels’ song know it is not an illusion. Its blessing is real because it’s substantial.

It’s substantial because it comes with an open invitation to follow Jesus, an invitation to be the people on whom God’s favour rests. We’re told to choose to be these people. This is not Christmas glitter – it’s a challenge that picks us up and propels us to tell others about the angels’ song.

It’s substantial because it recognizes the continuing co-existence of both joy and sorrow. Because the joy of the angels’ song stands alongside, and is often tempered by the moments of sorrow, it brings the comfort of reality with it. Biblical joy is not a bubble of euphoria that is destined to burst. We can trust this song because it is carved out of the hard stones of life.

Substance of hope

But it also has another substance: the substance of hope. In the great trilogy of faith, hope, and love, hope is sometimes lost. Between faith and love, hope can feel elusive and vague. But biblical hope is not an abstraction – it’s the anchor of the soul during its dark nights.

Some 50 years after the angels’ song, Paul explains more about the substance of hope: “For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently” (Romans 8:24–25).

The angels’ song comes with the substance of hope because it speaks of something of which we already have a glimmer. That glimmer is the peace that transcends understanding. Mary had already received this. This peace did not leave when she was also told that a day of sorrow remained before her.

She knew the angels also spoke of another day when there will be no more cruel words, when the last sword is beaten into a plowshare, and when the last tear is wiped away, never to return.

And so with Mary, and all those who choose to follow Jesus, take hold of the peace that transcends understanding while waiting in hope for the peace we do not yet see.

James Toews is pastor at Neighbourhood Church, Nanaimo, B.C.

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