Tragedy Tolls the Bells of Christmas

Christmas 2020 is one that many of us would like to forget. People are either spending Christmas in COVID lockdown or risking exposure to be with those they love. Either way, the specter of more than 326,000 COVID deaths in America looms large over this happiest time of year. On a personal level, I’m reflecting on the deaths of several friends. There are a lot of empty chairs at a lot of tables this year.

Of course, sadness and tragedy remembered at Christmastime aren’t new. Most people have the experience of living through the first Christmas after the death of a loved one. My wife’s grandma told us that Christmas is always hard, even though her partner has been gone for 20 years.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, writing from the middle of the American Civil War, wrote the poem Christmas Bells. Two years prior, his wife of 18 years was burned to death. His country was falling apart around him. Then, in March, his son left without permission to join the Union Army. This national tragedy had become personal for him, compounding the aching left in his heart from the loss of his wife. In late November, his son was wounded and near death. Two weeks before Christmas, they returned from Washington DC to Cambridge, Mass., where he was tending to the boy’s wounds.

Longfellow sat down to write on Christmas Day. His poem starts with a Christmas Card-perfect rendition of familiar holiday felicitations. Christmas sunrise, in his telling, is especially sweet.

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!

But in the fourth verse tragedy overtakes tradition, and the bells of Christmas are overwhelmed by the peals of cannon-fire. His bitter pain is palpable, jumping from the page and into the hearts of everyone who knows what it’s like to awaken, only to remember the pain that sleep had interrupted.

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 hearth-stones of a continent,
    And made forlorn
    The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

For Longfellow the cannons weren’t an abstraction. His broken son lay in the other room as a testament to their reality. No matter the seeming rightness of the cause, the cost of war was real and threatened to steal Longfellow’s faith in goodness and justice. Surely, all light would soon be swallowed up.

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!"

But somewhere between the 6th and the 7th verse, Longfellow went on a journey toward redemption. I don’t know how long he lay down his pen, nor what passed through his mind while he looked out the window into that wintry New England day. But he found, in his faith, the answer to the pain and injustice that he felt.

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."

Longfellow found hope in God’s existence. He realized that, though the purposes of Divine Providence be obscured, they still exist. His writing echoes the words of Job from the Biblical book that bears his name: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end He will stand on the earth.” (Job 19:25)

There is a redeemer, and the hope you can have this Christmas is the hope that you place in Him. Wherever redemption you’re needing, I pray that this Christmas, you’re able to make part of Longfellow’s journey.

What COVID has taken… and what’s left

It’s Saturday during a COVID holiday season in Arlington, VA, and some things still look normal. As I drive, I’m enjoying Christmas lights diffusing their way through an early-morning fog. There are a few lights and decorations around the shopping areas of Arlington, but I can’t wondering help what a normal Christmas would look like here. COVID has taken away the normalcy of our Christmas traditions this year.

I drive past a church. Since arriving in the Washington DC area this summer, we haven’t been able to darken the door of a church. I grieve when I realize that we’ll probably never get a chance to visit this church and meet its people – and we’ll probably never experience the variety of churches (from Quaker to Orthodox) that are part of the communities around Washington DC. COVID has stolen the opportunity to enjoy the in-person richness and deep ceremony of religious observance.

One of the things I was most anticipating about moving my family to Washington DC was sharing with them all the museums and historical sites I’ve enjoyed in the past. To be fair, we’ve had tremendous experiences as the good people at Mount Vernon, Manassas, and Monticello worked to reopen with safety measures. The day the National Museum of American History re-opened, we were there with timed entry tickets. I thanked an employee for his work, and I flushed with tears when he welcomed me back and told me that all their work was for our benefit. His eyes said what his voice couldn’t: that he wanted the people back as much as they wanted to be there. But those museums are closed again, and the brief taste of re-opening has increased our longing to return to normalcy. COVID has closed our public spaces, making it more difficult to share our heritage.

His eyes said what his voice couldn’t: that he wanted the people back as much as they wanted to be there.

Of course, others have lost far more than me. Millions know someone who has died from COVID. The fact that they were previously sick or healthy doesn’t change the fact that they’re now gone. COVID has robbed us of our loved ones. Many people will live with still-unknown long-term consequences from this disease.

More millions have lost jobs, savings, homes, and businesses during this time. Though the stock market is buoyed along by the expectation that we’ll return to normal some day soon, the savings accounts of many Americans may never recover. Every stadium in America could be filled with those face hunger or eviction, and a good price on the S&P 500 doesn’t calm the rumblings of a child’s empty stomach, or the despair and the shame of a parent who can’t afford to feed her. COVID has taken the food from many bellies, and tossed many out of their homes in the world’s cruelest Christmas gift.

But for as much as COVID has taken, it’s left some things behind. Masks aren’t enough to block a stranger’s smile. Businesses have innovated at near-unbelievable pace. Many (not all) children have gotten more parental attention.

Though there have been deep divisions in America over how to handle a pandemic, we still direct most of our disagreement at governors far away or and abstractions like governance structures. The real flesh-and-blood people who work at our grocery store, deliver our food, staff an emergency room, or drive an ambulance are our new heroes. The term ‘essential worker’ is an overdue recognition of how important many previously unheralded members of our society are.

The irrepressible ingenuity of American business has been on full display this year. Despite the economic devastation, there’s been a raft of new services that will outlast the pandemic. Traditional grocery stores now offer curbside pickup, everything carry-able is now deliverable, online shopping is now the norm, we’ve learned a lot about how to do online learning, and manufacturers have pivoted to make masks and ventilators and any number of new products. There are always people who suffer in the process of creative destruction that Joseph Shumpeter popularized, but the creation part of the equation leaves an overall better world in its wake.

For those who have been able to work from home, there’s another side to the insanity coin that is living (and working) full-time with children constantly at your elbows. The minute I take a break for lunch or stop working for the day, my kids are there wanting to spend time with me. I can sit on the ground and play a simple game of “roly-ball” with my 4-year-old instead of walking with colleagues to a parking lot to commute home or go to an after-work happy hour. I’ve lost the chance to network and make friends with some amazing colleagues. While I grieve that, my children will look back at this pandemic as a time when they had the most precious gift I can give: time and closeness during their formative years. My 4-year-old, Joshua, will know what it’s like to have Daddy fully available. He’ll live the rest of his life with the unshakeable foundation of the knowledge that when it matters, I’m there for him. When I’m on my death bed, that’ll matter more to him than the size of my savings account.

There’s another side to the insanity coin that is living (and working) full-time with children constantly at your elbows.

COVID has stolen a lot. We owe it to ourselves and each other to grieve with those who have lost: opportunities, jobs, and loved ones. But it would a further tragedy if we didn’t acknowledge what COVID has left behind.

So friends, this Christmas season, let’s do what we can: see each other with compassion, tell you loved ones what they mean to you, take measures to protect others, give the gifts that don’t cost money but always outlast our savings accounts. Not all of us will make it out of this. But those who do carry the responsibility to remake the remaining world into a better place.

We’re up to it. I’ll see you on the other side.