Henry was having a terrible Christmas – possibly the worst Christmas ever.
One might almost say he was experiencing hell on earth, and not just because he was in the midst of producing a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, famous for its fanciful depictions of hell in all its ghoulish glory. He didn’t need Dante to tell him the meaning of suffering and despair. He was all too familiar with both.
Two years earlier, his beloved wife, Frances, accidentally set her dress on fire. He heard her cries from a nearby room and ran to her aid, throwing himself on top of her in an attempt to extinguish the flames. He sustained serious burns in the process, but none so bad as his wife’s. She died the following morning. Henry’s grief was absolute. He stated that he was “inwardly bleeding to death” and resorted to taking drugs in an attempt to dull the pain.
But that was only the beginning of Henry’s troubles. Indeed, his wife’s fate served as an apt metaphor for the world around him, which was in its own way going up in flames.
You see, Henry lived in the 19th century, a time of greater internal strife than the United States has known either before or since. For years before the start of the Civil War, tensions had been rising between the states, which were in no way “united”. For all their wisdom, the American Founding Fathers had “kicked the can down the road” when it came to the biggest political hot potato of all: the right to hold human beings as property.
As the country grew, the rift between so-called “slave” and “free” states only widened, and the debate was anything but civil. In a sign of how the situation had spiraled out of control, U.S. Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist, was severely beaten by U.S. Representative Preston Brooks on the Senate floor. Sumner was one of Henry’s friends.
The outbreak of war in the same year as Henry’s wife’s death was a disaster of epic proportions. It is difficult in the 21st century to appreciate the horrors of the Civil War, particularly when our minds race more quickly to the conflicts of the 20th century. Not only did the war lead to more deaths, either in battle or from disease, than all other American military conflicts combined, but it took place on American soil. The South’s infrastructure was largely destroyed, as most of the battles took place there.
Total deaths attributed to the war were certainly over half a million, and possibly closer to one million. This included around 50,000 civilians, and represented as much as a 20% loss of the male population between 20-40 years old. Less clear is just how many thousand men were forced to go through the rest of their lives with limbs missing, continual nightmares, and other scars of war.
The year before Henry’s terrible Christmas, the United States experienced what was probably the single bloodiest day in its history at the Battle of Antietam (also known as the Battle of Sharpsburg). The semi-official total is 22,717 soldiers either dead, wounded, or missing. For comparison, there were just under 3,000 deaths in the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Add that together with all of the combat deaths the U.S. has experienced this century in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and you’re starting to get a picture of the horror at Antietam…and that was just one day of the Civil War.
Around 50,000 lives were lost in three days at Gettysburg, the deadliest battle of the war. The Vietnam War went on for years before reaching that total of American deaths. My point in reciting these figures is not to suggest that we’ve “gone soft” in our aversion to casualties, but rather that the Civil War was definitely hell on earth.
Let us not forget that the casus belli behind the Civil War revolved around human slavery. A lot of people in the years following the war have tried to deny this fact. There is plenty of talk about “states’ rights”, as if the disagreements boiled down to a simple question of legal jurisdiction. You’ll hear statements that very few people actually owned slaves, as if the agricultural economy that kept the South functioning was not extremely dependent on that slave labor. The abuses of slavery were well known and much publicized, and large portions of American society not only rationalized it, but actually promoted it as part of God’s supposed will.
Yes, Henry’s world was burning. The war that was supposed to be done in a matter of months had gone on for more than two years, and there was no end in sight. Had there been no war, he might have been equally discouraged by the widespread abuses of the Industrial Revolution, the ill will shown to millions of immigrants pouring onto American shores, the often savage treatment of Native Americans, or the denial of anything like equal rights to American females. Overseas, the seeds of discontent that would eventually lead to the worst armed conflicts in world history had already been planted in Europe, and the technology which would drive that mass destruction was getting a test run on the killing fields of America.
It was in 1863 that Henry’s own son joined the Union army, speaking words that might send a chill through the heart of any parent, despite their ardent patriotism: “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.” In November of that year, this eldest son was seriously wounded, and it was to be a Christmas season of great anxiety.
On Christmas Day, 1863, Henry responded to this heartache in a most extraordinary way. You see, his full name was Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and he was the most famous poet in the country. Poems such as “Hiawatha” and “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere” had made him an American legend in his time. But the cause which had captured his imagination in the years before, during, and after the Civil War was that of reconciliation, as he wrote in 1878: “I have only one desire; and that is for harmony, and a frank and honest understanding between North and South.”
While another giant of American literature, Walt Whitman, produced the ultimate work of Civil War poetry in his epic “Drum Taps” (best known for the poem “O Captain! My Captain!”), Longfellow’s contribution was far more intimate: a cry of pain and hope from a man cast into a storm few of us can possibly imagine. Here are his words:
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!
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 to men!
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 heath-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace and earth, good-will to men!
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!”
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.”
Much of Longfellow’s poem was eventually set to music and became a beloved Christmas carol, stripped of its references to the Civil War. It is one of my favorite songs to hear, not only at Christmas, but at any time of the year, for its message is incredibly powerful.
Here we stand at Christmas 2015, more than a century and a half after Longfellow wrote those words. Yet, minus a few specific references, they could easily describe our own social context. How many mass shootings and terrorist attacks have we heard about in the past few months, let alone the past few years? A band of armed men turned what should have been a celebratory evening in Paris into a scene of horror. Just this past week, a new father and mother left their baby and attacked an office that helps the disabled, the very workplace that had recently thrown them a baby shower. Earlier in the year, a young man apparently motivated by racism brought death to a welcoming church in Charleston, South Carolina. The pregnant daughter of my former music pastor was shot in the head by a home invader, leaving behind a husband and toddler.
What of the political debates which seem to tear us apart daily? What of the thousands of North Koreans who even now languish in labor camps that are just as heinous as anything produced by the Nazis? What of the aggression of world powers intent on proving the phrase “might makes right”? What of the unwillingness of so many – all of us, really – to listen to and love one another as we should?
“Wars and rumors of wars.” That was how Jesus Christ told us we could identify the “End Times”. (Matthew 24:6) Yet, in the 2,000 years since He walked this earth, there has never been a generation which has seen the absence of “wars and rumors of wars”. Peace may prevail for a short amount of time. The “New World Order” heralded in the United States after the collapse of the Soviet Union never quite took shape. At most, it lasted for a decade, and don’t tell anyone in Rwanda, the Balkans, the Congo, North Korea, Russia, or a thousand other places that the 1990s were a jolly decade.
Schoolchildren in America used to be taught to hide under their desks in case of a Soviet attack. Now they are taught to hide under their desks in case of an “active shooter”. Understanding a killer’s motivations is essential in order to help prevent future attacks, but in at least one sense it does us little good. Human beings will always be selfish; and where we are selfish, some of us will be hateful; and where we are hateful, some of us will be violent.
“Hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good will to men.” So Longfellow wrote in response to the million and one lyrics proclaiming good tidings in the Christmas season, when a perfectly rational person might easily conclude that there is little to be happy about. 2,000 years of singing about “peace on earth” has not made it any more real. “It’s a joke,” Longfellow seems to say. Even families far removed from the type of conflict that makes national news are dreading each other’s company this holiday season, afraid that pent-up frustrations will make their way to the fore.
As much as our current anxieties may seem to violate the spirit of the occasion, they actually serve as a potent reminder of what Christmas is really about. It was this climate of anger, resentment, and even hatred that necessitated Christ’s birth. It was the entire purpose of His incarnation as a human baby. He was born to bring reconciliation to the sons of men.
Longfellow understood that this was the true purpose of Christmas. That is why his poem pointed to the fact of God’s existence as the anecdote to the strife all around him. “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep,” he proclaimed, concluding that, “The wrong shall fail, the right prevail.” Our comfort in this life, he argued, comes from knowing that the battle is already won.
But the reconciliation brought about by Jesus Christ was not for the end of time alone. It was to take place in the lives of his followers as they grew in their love and knowledge of Him. Consider another popular Christmas song written by Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!”, where we find the words, “Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled”. Then there is another favorite, “O Holy Night”. The third verse of the most common English translation reads in part,
Truly He taught us
To love one another;
His law is love and
His gospel is peace.
Chains shall He break
For the slave is our brother;
And in His name
All oppression shall cease.
I could probably find a hundred other Christmas lyrics proclaiming much the same message. Christ’s birth heralds the reconciliation of God with man and of man with man. It is the beginning of the end of violence and injustice. Hanging on the cross, Christ declared, “It is finished!” He referred not only to His own suffering, nor only to man’s eternal condemnation, but also to the division which has torn this world apart. For those who believe, the love of Christ can make reconciliation possible, but only by His power.
At the time of Longfellow’s death, his world was far different than it had been on that fateful Christmas Day, 1863. The Civil War was over and Reconstruction had been underway for nearly two decades. Sadly, there was no end to the conflict within the human heart. The century that followed would be one of greater slaughter than any on record, despite numerous claims of human “progress”. In 2015, we can put a cell phone in the hands of practically anyone, but we are no closer to healing the wounds of conflict. We increase in knowledge, but not in true understanding.
Let us remember this Christmas the reason for Christ’s birth. He lived a life in defiance of discord and injustice. He laid down that life to make reconciliation possible and bring an end to conflict. He is Emmanuel, God forever with us – the ultimate Prince of Peace.