Christmas songs are supposed to be happy. Jingle bells ringing, happy people singing, red noses shining, and bringing good tidings – that’s the epitome of the Christmas spirit – right?
In many moments, I share this joyful sentiment. I love the wonder and anticipation of the season and how Advent invites us to pause and reflect. But sometimes, simple acts like reading news of war or chatting honestly with a broken friend leave me relieved that sentiments like Henry Longfellow’s make it into the season too:
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.”
Written near the end of the civil war after the tragic death of his wife and serious injury of his son, I can only imagine the grief that shook Longfellow’s heart. “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays,” he wrote the Christmas after his wife’s death. “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Three years later, he penned the words to the beloved carol, I heard the bells on Christmas Day.
We might all be better for it if we walked through advent like this. Certainly all of our hearts carry unmet longing and unresolved burdens, even through a seemingly joy-filled season. I fluctuate somewhere being parading my longings and burdens boldly before God and scrambling to cover them up so no one else can see my lack…
Perhaps Longfellow felt the same way that Christmas morning when he heard the bells ringing the old and familiar carols.
…and wild and sweet, the words repeat of peace on earth, good will to men.
For even if the song of peace is sweet, it can still be wild, elusive, unpredictable and uncontrollable. And even if good will to men runs wild, it can still hold an underlying sweetness, immeasurable pain interwoven with threads of hope and goodness. The sweetness of the season rings through warm moments, celebratory spirits, joy-filled children. But the wildness is just as present, highlighting the very present conflict of unresolved tensions, global injustices, misplaced priorities, feelings of grief, and pressures of holiday obligations.
These incongruous realities of advent prompt us to quiet our spirits and listen rather than to numb them with busyness, to seek hope through meaningful actions rather than chase happiness through meaningless objects. They beckon us to live quietly yet expectantly in a world of crashing noise. In the quietness, we can pray simple words like this:
May we return to the breath and the silence.
To the breath that gives us life,
To the silence where we hear God’s whispers.
May we weep for the brokenness of our souls,
And cry out against our distractedness.
May we return to the eternal God,
Whose love fills every fibre of our being.
Come, Lord Jesus. We eagerly await your arrival, wild and sweet.
This advent reflection was originally posted on my friend Amy’s blog, Making all things new.