Christmas is for the Hurting
The Christmas poem “I heard the bells on Christmas day” remains popular more than a century and a half after it was written because all these years later, we can still relate to the sentiment expressed by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow:
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.”
The sad reality is that all of us go through seasons where Longfellow’s words describe how we feel. The tragedies of life hit, overwhelming us like waves, and all we feel is despair. Envy, strife, and quarrels are all around us, and we know no peace. Darkness seems to be winning, mocking those who walk in the light. We’re longing for something else. We desire healing for us, for our families, for the hurting among us, for the world around us.
For many, 2020 has been just such a year.
As I type this, I can think of families who have endured tragic, unexpected losses of loved ones, dear friends and beloved family members, in recent months. I can think of others, whose losses perhaps haven’t been as sudden and unexpected, but have been equally heart-breaking, coming after months or more of declining health. Families who are enduring deep and long seasons of difficulties in relationships. Parents who are greatly concerned for their children and grandchildren. I can think of those who have lost their jobs unexpectedly and are facing all of the concern that goes along with that. I can think of those who are waiting on test results, perhaps facing a frightening future.
Add to that, of course, all of those who have suffered from the pandemic. Those who have been sick. Those who have lost family members and friends to the disease. The many who have been largely closed off from meaningful face to face relationships with others for ten long months.
There are many who are hurting this Christmas, but instead of raising a white flag with the notion that “Christmas is a difficult season for the hurting,” that all the talk of joy and peace and hope serves only to alienate the hurting, Scripture would lead us instead to affirm that Christmas is for the hurting.
Christmas is for the hurting.
At Christmas, we sing of Jesus, who is the “joy of every longing heart,” because Christmas is an acknowledgement of our deep longing for joy instead of tragedy, a joy that we know is outside anything this fallen earth can bring.
At Christmas, we sing of the One who is “Ris’n with healing in His wings.” Celebrating Christmas is an admission that we need healing that we ourselves cannot provide.
At Christmas, we sing, asking Christ to “bid envy, strife, and quarrels cease,” because we long for the day with the whole world will be filled with heaven’s peace, not in a cliché beauty-pageant answer sort of way, but a true, deep, lasting peace that we know will only come through Christ.
Christmas is for the hurting.
Christmas is the message that for “those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Isaiah 9:2). To a lowly group of shepherds came the announcement of “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). The long-suffering Anna, 84 years old and many decades a widow—it was she who saw the baby in the temple and began to rejoice (see Luke 2:36–38). And it was to the suffering, persecuted, ostracized early church that John wrote regarding Christ’s incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.… For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (John 1:14–16).
Christmas isn’t for the comfortable; Christmas is for the hurting, because Christmas is the message that Light has entered into our dark world to give the hurting hope and joy and peace.
That’s the realization that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow came to in the climatic verse of his famed poem. As he heard the bells on Christmas day, despite his two-year struggle with immense grief after the loss of his wife in a tragic accident in which he himself tried to save her; despite the hatred that he saw in 1863 in the divided nation and the ongoing Civil War; despite the news of his eldest son’s recent serious wound, being shot and nearly paralyzed in battle; despite all of that, Longfellow heard the bells and knew, Christmas is for the hurting.
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.”
For the hurting this Christmas, receive this season as God’s good gift to you. Let the “tidings of comfort and joy” be not just words in a familiar carol, but let the news itself, the “tidings” themselves, instead be a balm for your soul as you reflect on the coming of Christ, the joy of every longing heart, the light for your darkness. If you are hurting this Christmas, Christmas is for you.
For an excellent telling of the full story behind “I heard the bells on Christmas day,” see “The True Story of Pain and Hope Behind ‘I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day'” by Justin Taylor on The Gospel Coalition.
Bert Watts has served since December 2016 as the Senior Pastor at Mountain Creek Baptist Church, where he has been on staff since 2012.