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I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Friday night my husband and I had the privilege of attending a Casting Crowns concert at the historic Ryman in Nashville. It was a night of Casting Crowns classics and Christmas songs. I cannot begin to tell you how good it felt to be in this beautiful venue listening to live music. Although we were socially distanced and masked up, there was a wonderful sense of normalcy about the evening.

In the midst of The First Noel and Silent Night was I Heard The Bells on Christmas Day. Let’s be honest, when you are decking the halls, you are probably not singing that particular song. It’s not the song that comes to mind for most people when singing Christmas tunes, although it may be familiar to you. I have always liked the song but often put it out of my mind until I happen upon it mid-December.

So, Friday night, I’m sitting alongside my husband, enjoying these joyous sounds of the season when the band began the first haunting notes of …Christmas Day.

For those of you who have not had the opportunity to attend a show at the Ryman, the atmosphere is quite unlike any place else. Known as the Mother Church of Country Music, the Ryman was built in the 1800s. It originally opened as the Union Gospel Tabernacle by Thomas Ryman, a Nashville businessman who owned several saloons and riverboats. Ryman conceived the idea of the auditorium as a tabernacle for the influential revivalist Samuel Porter Jones. He had attended one of Jones’ revivals with the intent to heckle, but was instead converted into a devout Christian. Church pews, stained glass windows, and an intimate 2,300 seats give the audience a chance to experience the music in a spectacular way.

The first few notes seemed to bring a slight hush over the auditorium. As Mark Hall (lead singer) began to sing, something changed. I don’t know quite how to explain it but there was a definite change in the air.

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play
And mild and sweet their songs repeat
Of peace on earth good will to men

Have you ever really listened to the words of this song? I’m not sure I ever really had, even though I could sing along with the best of them on this song.

And the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (peace on earth)
In my heart I hear them (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

Originally written by Henry Longfellow in 1863, the song began as a poem. Longfellow had experienced some significant pain in his life. A father of 6 children, his wife had died after her dress had caught fire. Longfellow tried to save her, sustaining significant burns himself which caused dramatic scars and considerable longterm grief. His oldest son was injured in the Civil War, causing paralysis. On Christmas day, 1863, Longfellow could hear the church bells across the village as well as the singing of “peace on earth”. The bells and songs seemed to compete profoundly with his observation in the world of injustice and violence. How could there be peace on earth when all around him there was such despair?

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

Oh how those same words can be applied today! As Mark sang out that verse, the very presence of God seemed to overcome the Church. Before I could scarcely take a breath, emotion only available from the Holy Spirit took over and a river of tears began to fall that would not be contained. The tears fell for the disappointments of the past year. They fell for the pain caused by people I loved. They fell for the loss of church. They fell for closings and cancelations. They fell for destructions of our cities and loss of life around the world. They fell for the anger in my own heart and the hearts of all those around us. And with that, I too bowed my head in despair.

But the bells are ringing (peace on earth)
Like a choir singing (peace on earth)
Does anybody hear them? (peace on earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men

It’s difficult to describe the complete submersion into the music. I know there were several instruments playing but all I could really hear were the bells and the angelic voices as they continued to proclaim “peace on earth.” I wanted it to stop and I wanted to stay in that moment forever all at the same time. I just could not seem to contain the sobs.

Then rang the bells more loud and deep
God is not dead, nor does he sleep (peace on earth, peace on earth)
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail
With peace on earth, good will to men

And with that, hope emerged. Yes, hope has always been there but I have spent so long burying it I suppose I had failed to see how right could ever prevail again in my lifetime. I know it sounds dramatic but that has been my heart. But you see, God refuses to be silenced. He refuses to let go once you take hold of his grace. He refuses to let dark prevail even when darkness can seem quite inviting. The truth is that it has felt like the wrong would win…. or rather that the wrong DID win. I simply do not know how to heal from this year. I do not know how to trust my heart again with those around me. I do not know how to serve God with reckless abandon anymore. Then rang the bells more loud and deep. Those bells are not the ones found on church steeples. Those are the bells of the holy choir and when they invade the silence they will not be ignored. Every closed off part of your soul will vibrate from them, awakening you to something more profound than words can describe.

Then 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 to men

And the bells they’re ringing (Peace on Earth)
Like a choir they’re singing (Peace on Earth)
And with our hearts we’ll hear them
Peace on earth, good will to men

Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? (Peace on Earth)
The life the angels singing (Peace on Earth)
Open up your heart and hear them (Peace on Earth)
Peace on earth, good will to men
Peace on earth, Peace on earth
Peace on earth, Good will to men

It’s Advent. It’s an anticipation of the coming. But in that moment in the Mother Church on a Friday night the Holy Spirit came. My dear friends, don’t miss it like I almost did. Don’t miss the light of day for the dark night of the soul. 2020 is not our identity. The disappointments, the challenges, or even the loses are not the finale. Do you hear the bells they’re ringing? Peace on earth. Peace on earth.

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