The Bells of Christmas

A sermon for Christmas Eve, 2011

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.

The past few years on Christmas Eve, I’ve invited you to consider some of many images and symbols of Christmas.  We’ve reflected on candles, evergreens, and even fruit!  This year as perhaps you could tell from my opening reading, I want to invite us to think about bells.

We’re not actually sure how long people have been using bells, as they have evolved in both size and substance from culture to culture as their uses have changed, but we know that the earliest bell foundries, used to make large bells that are placed in towers, date to the 4th Century.  Cultures all over the world utilized bells in one form or fashion.

Like pipe organs and other musical instruments, it takes considerable skill and great care to create bells, even small ones.  But what is it about bells that grabs our attention?  It’s not a loud, grating noise.  It’s a musical note, a pleasant tone.  And sometimes we get to hear whole choirs of bells play.  If you’ve ever had the privilege of visiting the National Cathedral during the peal bells on Sunday, you’ll know what beauty can come from these hunks of metal.  They, along with a few other cathedrals in the world, are keeping alive the art of change ringing.

Sadly, churches are the exception to the rule in our society when it comes to use of bells.  Today they are mostly seen as just musical instruments, but aren’t a recognizable part of our collective experience.  You might hear a bell in school, telling you when to change classes.  You might hear a bell used as an alarm, but for the most part, electronic tones and buzzers have replaced bells.

Once upon a time, however, bells would actually have enjoyed a place at the center of a town’s life.  Bells were once the source of time for great populations of people.  Londoners could rely on Big Ben to tell them every fifteen minutes what time it was with laudable accuracy.  Outside the cities, it often fell to parish churches to toll the hours.  In America, bells were often moved from churches to town halls, but nonetheless bells would keep time with the lives of citizens.

Have you ever had the treat on a cold winter’s night to hear bells in the distance?  It’s amazing how far their sound can be heard, often for many miles.  As you have already heard on this Christmas Eve, we have a bell here at Christ Church.  We use it call all good Christians, and especially Episcopalians, to worship with us.  As poet John Betjeman once wrote, bells sound as if they are saying, “Come!”

One of my first memories of Christmas at Christ Church, and this is my ninth Christmas with you, was of John Bailey and Ben Smoot looking very much like mischievous little boys ringing the church bell on Christmas Eve until the rope came off the pulley, and then they would rush up into the bell tower to fix it.  I can’t tell you how much it warmed my heart to see Scott West on one of his first Sundays here reach for the bell rope and ring our bell.  I remember remarking how good it was to hear the bell on every Sunday, not just special occasions, and he replied something to the effect, “Bells are for ringing!”

But why do we associate them so much with Christmas?  I think it is part of our cultural history.  Bells call to us, and all of us.  Bells unite us with their message.  Bells speak to us that we must pay attention.  There’s something important we need to know.

The child born this night sounded a clarion call to the world.  God has come among us.  Come, see the child.  Ring out wild bells.  Rejoice, ye tenants of the earth.  Throw care away!  This is good news indeed.  We see the glow of candles.  We taste the sweet juice of fruit.  We smell the scent of evergreens.  But the sound of Christmas is bells.  We hear their irresistible message.  Joy!  Hope!  Peace!  Peace to God’s people on earth.

This Christmas, whenever you hear a bell, try not to think of angels getting their wings.  Instead think of the great news this night represents for all us.  God’s favor is with us.  God came down from heaven.  God has become a man, limited to time and space.  God chose to walk among us, to breathe our air, to see through our eyes, to speak our language, to hear our voices.  The great theological word we use for this is incarnation.

We are God’s people, guided to a lowly manger to worship with shepherds.  We gather to celebrate this good news of great joy.  And this good news is for everyone, just like the pealing of bells.  The message goes out for all to hear.

It is then up to us to respond.  One of the joys of being part of a church family that celebrates Eucharist almost every time we gather is that we are always offered a chance to respond, to engage our bodies and our wills in response to God’s invitation.  When we come forward with open hands, let us open our hearts as well to the grace and peace God has offered us in the person of Jesus Christ.  This Christmas is the same as any other, true joy can’t be found wrapped with a bow under a tree.  The joy of Christmas is the joy of Mary, gazing on the face of her son, God’s son, our savior.

I began this sermon with a line of Longfellow’s “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”  Do you know when and why it was written?  150 years ago tonight, Union and Confederate forces were spending their first Christmas in wartime.  Everyone had hoped the conflict would be over by Christmas, but unspeakable carnage had told them by December of 1861 that this would be no short war.  Both sides prayed to the same God for victory.  Both sides felt their cause was God’s cause.  Both sides celebrated Christmas in very much the same way.

The are no stories from Civil War annals at all like the story of “The Christmas Truce” that happened between English and German soldiers in 1914, the first Christmas of World War I, when soldiers on both sides joined in singing Christmas carols and even playing soccer together.  And yet, not doubt there were moments when troops encamped on either side could hear bells from the local churches of their “enemies” calling everyone to church on Christmas.  How could they not pray for peace on a night like this?  Their diaries and journals are filled with homeward hopes and anguished longing for family.  Christmas, above all other times, calls us home.

Longfellow’s poem was published in 1864, the last Christmas of the war.  If you ever take the time to read ALL of the verses, you will see how much a piece of Yankee propaganda it actually was, and yet, the stanzas that have come down to us in the form of this carol speak loudly to us even today of what the true meaning of Christmas, especially for those longing for peace:

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.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th’unbroken song
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!

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.’

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