I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 14.27
27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Matthew 1.20-23
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

Isaiah 9.6-7a
6 For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
7 Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.

Reflection: I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

“I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” was written during the American Civil War by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow’s wife had died in an accidental fire and his oldest son had been severely wounded in the war, so it is no surprise that when he penned the lyrics on Christmas Day 1863, he included somber words:

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

Fifty years later, a war broke out across the world so terrible that it was called the War to End All Wars.

Germans invaded France and Belgium and some front-line trenches were only fifty yards apart. At the end of 1914, initiatives for peace were rejected, including a request by Pope Benedict for a truce on Christmas Day.

A miracle took place on Christmas Eve. Roughly 100,000 British and German troops were involved in an unofficial Christmas Truce.

Private Frank Sumter of the London Rifle Brigade journaled,

We heard the Germans singing “Silent night, Holy night”… and we joined in… One German took a chance and jumped up and shouted, “Happy Christmas!” Our boys said, “If he can do it, we can do it,” and we all jumped up. A Sergeant Major shouted, “Get down!” But we said, “Shut up Sergeant, it’s Christmas time!”

Troops from both sides climbed out of their trenches, wished each other “Merry Christmas,” played games, and shared gifts. For a few hours, the peace of Christmas prevailed on the fields of battle.

This is what Christmas does. Jesus radically breaks into our cold, dark, and hostile world. 

The world says, “Get down. Don’t try to make peace. Don’t cross enemy lines. Don’t befriend people whose race, politics, culture or nationality are different from you.”

Jesus says, Shut up world, it’s Christmas time!”

The world says, “In despair I bowed my head, there is no peace on earth, I said.” 

Jesus says, “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, God is not dead, nor does He sleep.”

The world says, “For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men!” 

Jesus says, “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.”

History reminds us the War to End All Wars did not do so. Physical wars continue but so do wars of words, ideologies, and cultures. Strife and discord still exist in our world. 

Jesus brings a new kind of peace, not only absence of war, but a new way of living. It is a peace that allows us to take risks by loving both our neighbor and our enemy, by being a voice of hope and the hands and feet of God in the world. 

Each and every year, this peace is available to all who find rest in the Savior, Christ the Lord.

Listen: I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Bryan Duncan
Read: Lyrics at Hymnary.org
Bonus View: Sainsbury’s 2014 Christmas Advert on the 100th Anniversary of the 1914 Christmas Truces

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. — Psalm 31.24

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 11 (Listen – 2:40)
John 14 (Listen – 4:13)

Christmas Day Readings
Zechariah 12.1-13.1 (Listen – 2:30)
John 15 (Listen – 3:20)

This Weekend’s Readings
Zechariah 13.2-9 (Listen – 1:40) John 16 (Listen – 4:14)
Zechariah 14 (Listen – 3:52) John 17 (Listen – 3:40)

Read more about End of Year Giving and Supporting our work
We rely on gifts of all sizes, including mustard-seed-sized gifts from many people, that can enable us to move mountains.

Read more about The Peace of Christ :: Peace of Advent
How many Christ-Followers have come to fully understand the divine reality that peace is our inheritance?

It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 13.13-15
13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Luke 2.13-14
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

Reflection: It Came Upon The Midnight Clear — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

After graduating in 1837 from the Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Edmund Hamilton Sears settled in as pastor in the country town of Wayland. The church was impressed with his character and preaching and Sears, who never had ambitions for a prominent city congregation, was enamored by the quiet beauty of the little parish.

One can sense parochial tranquility in his most famous hymn.

It came upon the midnight clear,
That glorious song of old…

The world in solemn stillness lay,
To hear the angels sing.

Sears’ family would quickly grow to four children, compelling him to seek out a larger church which could support them. In 1840, he accepted the pastorate of a church in Lancaster, where he would serve for seven years.

The work in Lancaster was difficult and Sears suffered from illness, depression, and an eventual breakdown. Ultimately, his condition deteriorated to the point where he was unable to project his preaching voice loud enough for the congregation to hear.

To facilitate recovery, he returned to Wayland for a year of rest. When healthy, he was invited to return to the Wayland church part-time, which freed him to use his gifts in writing.

In the aftermath of his personal struggles, he wrote “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear,” in 1849. At the time, the U.S. was reeling from the Mexican War and struggling with slavery as the Civil War drew near.

His sadness is palpable in the lyrics.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long…

And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring…

Sears’ theology was passionately focused on Christ; he preached “The word ‘Jesus’ opens the heart and touches the place of tears.” He maintained that Christ alone had bridged the great divide between God and humanity.

As a result, he believed that we are responsible for implementing God’s peace in the world, consequently he preached for equality of women and men, opposing killing even in war, and against the evils of slavery.

This work towards peace is reflected in the carol’s hopeful ending.

When peace shall over all the earth
Its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song
Which now the angels sing.

Following his life struggles, Sears managed to find his own peace and eventually a new purpose as a full-time writer. In his most read work, The Fourth Gospel: The Heart of Christ, he writes,

My consciousness at one time may give me an inward sense of moral ruin and disorder. I may see a creation rise out of this chaos… a peace more sweet than the tranquility of the morning… It comes not from inward beholdings of the Deity, but of what He does…

Listen: It Came Upon A Midnight Clear by Over the Rhine
Read: Lyrics at Hymnary.org

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
Send our your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;

That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness; and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God. — Psalm 43.3-4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 10 (Listen – 2:11)
John 13 (Listen – 5:06)

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It is only through the support of our donors that we are able to continue this work. Consider joining them today.

Read more about From Silence, Peace :: Peace of Advent
The God who turned his back, came back. He came to speak peace to the people who had chosen death instead of life.

God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 12.14-15
14 Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it, as it is written:
15 “Do not be afraid, Daughter Zion;
    see, your king is coming,
    seated on a donkey’s colt.”

Zechariah 9.9
9 Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
    Shout, Daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king comes to you,
    righteous and victorious,
lowly and riding on a donkey,
    on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Luke 2.10-12
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Reflection: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

“The owner of one scant young nose, gnawed and mumbled by the hungry cold as bones are gnawed by dogs, stooped down at Scrooge’s keyhole to regale him with a Christmas carol: but at the first sound of

‘God bless you, merry gentleman!
May nothing you dismay!’

Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action, that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.”

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is among the oldest existing Christmas carols, dating back to the 16th century. It is so iconic that Charles Dickens used it in his classic tale from 1843, A Christmas Carol, as the carol sung by a young caroler attempting to bring joy to the hardened Ebenezer Scrooge.

Changes in language and word usage over time have led to an unfortunate misinterpretation of the opening line and confusion over punctuation. Even Dickens, in his quotation of the lyric, got it wrong.

Contrary to common perception, the song is not an instruction to relax, directed to a group of cheerful men.

In old English, the word rest means “to keep, remain.” The adjective merry had a broader meaning which included “prosperity” and “peace” in addition to “joy.” The comma should properly be placed between merry and gentlemen.

“God rest ye merry” could more accurately be phrased as, “May God grant you peace and joy.”

A great contrast is depicted in Dickens’ scene: the young caroler braving the blistering winter cold to spread tidings of comfort and joy and the elder Scrooge, safe and warm inside, yet with a cold, hard heart, devoid of peace and joy.

The antidote to Scrooge’s downcast spirit would have been found in a later verse, had he let the poor young singer continue.

“Fear not, then,” said the angel,
“Let nothing you affright;
This day is born a Savior
Of a pure virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in him
From Satan’s power and might.”

The comforting message from the angel to the shepherds was, “Don’t be afraid! I’ve got good news of peace and joy!” (Luke 2:10).

Scrooge was visited, not by angels, but by spirits, and his heart began to soften. When later questioned by the Ghost of Christmas Past, Scrooge remembered his error, “There was a boy singing a Christmas Carol at my door last night. I should like to have given him something: that’s all.”

Let us, like Scrooge, allow our hearts to soften as we set aside our fears this Christmas. Let us actively embrace God’s peace promised to us by the angel on that first Christmas morn.

God rest ye merry, gentle reader, and fear not, for the Prince of Peace has been born.

Listen: God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen by Jars of Clay
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org
Bonus Read: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens


From John: Just interjecting here to say that as a writer, I was thrilled and nerding out a bit that part of Jon’s analysis of this carol involved understanding the change in meaning that can be made by the placement of a comma. I’ve been so thankful for Jon’s careful and excellent work on these pieces. Readers, God rest ye merry!

Divine Hours Prayer: The Request for Presence
May God be merciful to us and bless us, show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
Let your ways be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations. — Psalm 67.1-2

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 9 (Listen – 3:01)
John 12 (Listen – 6:26)

Read more about End of Year Giving and Supporting our work
Many of you have already responded this past week with end-of-year donations and we are so thankful! No donation is too large or too small.

Read more about Transcendent Peace and Rest
We can experience God’s peace in every day and any moment. Hebrews tells us that “we who have believed enter that rest.”

The Coventry Carol — Carols of Advent Peace

Scripture Focus: John 11.32-35
32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked.
“Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
35 Jesus wept.

Matthew 2.16-18
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
    and refusing to be comforted,
    because they are no more.”

Reflection: The Coventry Carol — Carols of Advent Peace
By Jon Polk

The peaceful sounding hymn, “The Coventry Carol,” with its calming chorus of “lully, lullay” (an onomatopoeia also found in the word lullaby), could be a perfect song for singing a sweet baby to sleep.

O sisters too, how may we do
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling for whom we sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay”?

The carol takes a decidedly dark turn in the second verse.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might in his own sight
All young children to slay.

Not what we might expect from a lullaby, these are the words of Bethlehem mothers grieving over their doomed sons. Yes, this carol depicts the often-overlooked postscript to the nativity story, the grim ‘Massacre of the Innocents.’ 

The mothers’ despair results from Herod’s order to kill all the male infants in Bethlehem under the age of two, his reaction to the inquiry of the Magi about the baby born to be king.

Certainly not a scene one typically finds in a modern Christmas pageant.

“The Coventry Carol” originates from 16th century Coventry, England, where it was performed, in fact, in a play called, The Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, a medieval performance depicting the complete nativity story from chapter two of Matthew, including the death of the young boys.

Of this horrific incident, Walter Wangerin writes, “It’s a hard thing to think about that event—especially now when it interrupts our Christmas joy. Yet it must be remembered, because lives of happiness are always interrupted by trouble.”

This haunting song reminds us that even the birth of our Savior is accompanied by grief and tragedy. For many, Christmas may not be ‘the most wonderful time of the year,’ but instead, a time when painful memories of missing loved ones or difficult days past overshadow our experience of the season.

Something lovely happens in the final verse, however. 

That woe is me, poor child, for thee
And ever mourn and may
For thy parting neither say nor sing,
“Bye bye, lully, lullay.”

The lamenting mothers recognize “thy parting,” that Mary and Joseph are able to flee to Egypt with the baby. Solace can be taken in the knowledge that Jesus has escaped the wrath of Herod. Christ’s final ‘parting’ will come with his own brutal death, which will serve to bring ultimate peace to humanity.

If you are grieving over loss this Christmas time, know that is okay.

If you are lamenting the past this Christmas, know that is okay.

If you are struggling to feel “Christmas-y” this year, know that is okay.

Take heart. Christ is coming. Peace will prevail. The empty manger ultimately leads to an empty tomb.

Listen: The Coventry Carol by Alison Moyet
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org

Image Note: The picture used in our image is from an artistic display at the Canterbury Cathedral by the British artist Arabella Dorman. It is made up of hundreds of items of refugee clothing, found largely on the beaches of the Greek island of Lesbos. It is a reminder to us of the violence and darkness refugees flee from, as did the holy family, and the light of Christ that promises to overturn that darkness. The unedited image can be viewed here

Divine Hours Prayer: The Refrain for the Morning Lessons
Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord. — Psalm 31.24

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 8 (Listen – 3:33)
John 11 (Listen – 4:44)

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If you have not donated this year (or ever), please prayerfully consider joining our donors, with either a one-time or monthly donation.

Read more about Joy Despite Everything :: Joy of Advent
Martha greets us at the darkest point of her life. When faith has failed. When her wick smolders. Martha shows us how to wait.

Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella — Carols of Advent Joy

Scripture Focus: John 8.12
12 When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 1.9-12
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. 10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

Reflection: Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella — Carols of Advent Joy
By Jon Polk

A quick search in any online Bible will reveal the obvious: no one in the pages of scripture is named Jeannette or Isabella.

Yet the lilting French carol, “Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella,” describes these two young girls, with decidedly non-Jewish names, as having stumbled upon the stable in which Jesus was born. 

Bring a torch, Jeannette, Isabella!
Bring a torch, to the cradle run!
It is Jesus, good folk of the village;
Christ is born and Mary’s calling.

Who are they?

As the story goes, Jeannette and Isabella are milkmaids who have gone to the stable to milk the cows. Overjoyed at their discovery of the newborn Jesus sleeping in the hay, the girls run back to their village to share the news and encourage the townsfolk to come see the baby. They are instructed to bring a torch, appropriate for the one who was born to be the light of the world.

Softly to the little stable.
Softly for a moment come;
Look and see how charming is Jesus,
How He is warm, His cheeks are rosy.

I do not recall this account in either Matthew or Luke’s infancy narratives.

“Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella” originates from the Provence region of France in the 16th-17th centuries. The melody is a ritournelle, a lively court dance for French nobility. The lyrics and story likely take their inspiration from a 1640s painting by French painter Georges de La Tour, “The Newborn Child,” depicting two young French girls quietly cradling the holy infant.

This unique carol is steeped in provincial particulars of 17th century Provence, France, from the tune to the lyrics to the very names of the girls themselves. Even the La Tour painting presents the pair of maids in rural French, not Jewish, dress. Still today on Christmas Eve, French children in the Provence region dress as farmhands and carry candles while singing the carol as they process to midnight mass.

So goes the incarnation. Certainly, the historical Jesus was born in a particular place, Bethlehem in Judah, and at a particular time, sometime around 4BC. However, each year, Christ is born into our world again in thousands of places, from Bethlehem to Paris to Madrid to Shanghai to Los Angeles to Dubai to London to Singapore.

The joy of Christ is reborn across our world today, incarnate in the hearts and homes of those who love and follow him.

Bring a torch, Diego, Sophia, Omar, Ying, Cormac, Emma, Kwame, Nikolai, Sunyoung, Giovanni, and Jennifer, share the news with your villages that Christ is born!

As for you, dear reader, to whom will you carry the light and joy of Christmas this year?

Listen: Bring a Torch, Jeannette, Isabella by Jenny Gullen & Derri Daugherty
Read: Lyrics from Hymnary.org
View: The Newborn Child by Georges de La Tour

Divine Hours Prayer: The Greeting
Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! They will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. — Psalm 65.4

– Divine Hours prayers from The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime by Phyllis Tickle

Today’s Readings
Zechariah 5 (Listen – 1:35)
John 8 (Listen – 7:33)

This Weekend’s Readings
Zechariah 6 (Listen – 2:08), John 9 (Listen – 4:56)
Zechariah 7 (Listen – 1:57), John 10 (Listen – 4:44)

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Read more about Joyful Light of Repentance :: Joy of Advent
Exposure of our shortcomings can bring shame but joy comes in repentance.

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