One of my favorite Christmas songs is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” It’s based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Christmas Bells.”

I love it because it’s a deeply honest lament. A lament, Biblically speaking, is a sad song that names hardships, and then turns at the end to express hope.

Christians grieve. A lot. Christ himself wept at the tomb of his friend, Lazarus. But we’re also commanded to grieve with hope–hope in the resurrection of our Lord. Death doesn’t have the last word: “We do not want you to be ignorant about those who die, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope. We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have died in Him.”

Wadsworth was a man acquainted with grief. He lost his first wife after a miscarriage. He lost his second wife (after eighteen years of marriage) in a tragic and nonsensical fire. Stricken by this grief, he wrote, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year after the fire, he wrote, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” Longfellow’s journal entry for December 25th 1862 reads: “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He has a son severely wounded in the Civil War. “Christmas Bells” laments the war, accents the mockery the joy of Christmas brings to a grieving heart, but then reaches deeper and holds on to hope. The belligerent bells will drown out the cannon–and all will be made well, someday.

Here’s the poem:

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 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.”