One of my many favorite Christmas songs, sung by the incomparable Bing Crosby, is the obscure “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” an unusual song that questions the sentiments we normally take for granted around Christmastime. Not one of the traditional carols, it is essentially a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put to music, and while it doesn’t specifically mention the birth of Our Lord, it is a song of Christian hope, the hope that is born in every heart on Christmas Day.
Longfellow begins his poem by recalling the thousands of years that “the belfries of all Christendom” have rung out the message of “peace on earth, good will to men.” But his reaction to this message is not what we expect in a Christmas song; yet it is a reaction that I have always been able to relate to:
“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 more I read, the more I realize that in all ages have men been tempted to despair, not just for personal reasons, but because of the state of the world in which they lived. After all, it is a fallen world. War and poverty, greed and lust, have always existed since the time of Adam and Eve. “The poor you always have with you,” Christ Himself told us.
That is not to say that our own time is no worse than other times. This is, of course, a difficult thing to judge objectively, but we do know that the world will progressively grow worse towards the end of the world, a period which is approaching, either proximately or remotely. Furthermore, we know that the power of the omnipresent media, especially the Internet, has provided untold opportunities for the corruption of our youth and the temptation of adults, to an extent unknown in any other age. Moreover, today the violence of the battlefield has spread its evils even to the very wombs of mothers.
Despair is increased by a feeling of helplessness. We look at the candidates for political office, and usually select — not a candidate we like — but a candidate who is less objectionable than his opponent. We vote — and “our” candidate loses. We write letters to our legislators, we donate money, perhaps even participate in political protests — and then watch the liberal media carry off victory after victory.
Like Longfellow, we are tempted to bow our heads in despair.
That’s when we need to remember our most powerful weapon — not our votes, not our money, not our pens — but our prayers. Prayer is what allowed people like Mother Teresa and Mother Angelica to accomplish all that they did against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Prayer was the secret weapon of all the saints whose accomplishments often extended to the miraculous.
Pray? Now? At the busiest time of year, the Advent and Christmas seasons?
Yes! After all, Advent and Christmas are, essentially, more than anything else, times for prayer, times for preparing our hearts for Our Savior and welcoming Him.
If you don’t say a daily Rosary, start now. If that’s too intimidating, try a decade or two a day. Go to Mass a few extra times during the week if possible. Make visits to the Blessed Sacrament. Spend five to ten minutes a day in spiritual reading. Say the Stations of the Cross on Fridays. Whatever you can add to your routine, even if it’s just a little, will have immeasurable benefit. Our Lord doesn’t scoff at us: “What, one decade is all you could manage? You might as well as not prayed at all!” On the contrary, He is tremendously pleased at our effort; He knows exactly how much it cost us to give up a television show or to put down a book and say a few prayers; and He will lovingly help us gradually increase from our one decade a day to five.
To be honest, in his poem, Longfellow doesn’t talk about the power of prayer. In fact, he doesn’t provide a deep discussion about why we should have Christian hope. He merely ends his poem with an affirmation of his belief and hope in God, an affirmation, however, that I find all the more moving because he has already admitted his temptation to doubt:
“Then peal 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.”
And we are reminded of the words of Christ: “Fear not; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).