“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”

On Christmas morning 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found himself in a darkened place at odds with the solemn joy of the day.

He had never recovered from the death of his second wife, Frances. She died an agonizing death two years earlier after her dress caught fire in a freak accident while Longfellow napped. He managed to snuff the fire with his own body, but she lingered in that state, succumbing the next day.

In March 1863 his eldest son, Charles, joined the Union army without his blessing and in November was severely wounded.

Distraught, Longfellow penned “Christmas Bells,” which has become the Christmas carol”I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”

I find comfort in its message during times like these; I hope you might also.

It speaks of the gayety of Christmas Day, at first as something that is rote, matter of fact: The bells are pealing, of course, because it is Christmas day. This happens all across Christendom.

But that ringing is drowned out by the sorrow of the evil so prevalent in the world: a civil war, a senseless slaying of children. There is no peace.

But no: It is not drowned out, it rings unhindered, ever swelling, bespeaking the great Truth it proclaims: “God is not dead nor doth he sleep.” Evil may distract us, and may at times overwhelm us, but it is a lie; it has no strength that we do not give it.

We may not see, with our finite vision and limited time, how the wrong fails and right prevails, but the message of Christmas, of those bells pealing out the birth of the Word made flesh, is that such is indeed the case.

The full 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 the earth, good-will to men.”

Yes, hate does mock, mock charity and goodness. But that is all it can do: hate, evil, can only mock and distort goodness, it cannot be and continue on its own. And thus it shall end, it does end, in the triumph of the Son, and in the triumph of each heart that chooses to love and live the life of the Son.

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep,” even when we cannot understand how a good and loving God could allow such an awful thing to happen.

“In the world you will have troubles, but take courage, for I have overcome the world!” (John 16:33)

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3 thoughts on ““God is not dead, nor doth He sleep.”

  1. [...] “God is not dead, Nor doth He sleep” On Christmas morning 1863 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow found himself in a darkened place at odds with the solemn joy of the day. He had never recovered from the death of his second wife, Frances. She died an agonizing death two years earlier after her dress caught fire in a freak accident while Longfellow napped. He managed to snuff the fire with his own body, but she lingered in that state, succumbing the next day.…more [...]

  2. in.media.stat.virtus says:

    “God is not dead, nor doth he sleep.” While these words are true, it is also right to say, following St. Thomas, that “He was ‘a dead man’” (ST III q. 50 a. 4). God’s union with and commitment to humanity extends, in Christ, even to moments in which humanity is broken and shattered apart. The fact that the ever-living God *has* died with us is our source of hope, for, in virtue of God’s devotion and presence to humanity (even when it is broken and dead), death does not have the last word. As Hans Urs von Balthasar has written, “He sinks into the hiatus, so that it may suffer shipwreck in him.” And St. Irenaeus of Lyons proclaimed, “He came even to death, that he might be ‘the first born from the dead,’ having pre-eminence among all, the Author of Life, who goes before all and shows the way.” We must remember this incredible love of our God during this dark and crushing time of night as we approach Christmas. For, as Karl Rahner beautifully said in one of his homilies, “In that one night every night, night as such, is redeemed and consecrated. Henceforward there is no longer any darkness upon this earth which may not turn out to be the shadowy womb of eternal light.”

    1. Tom Crowe says:

      Well said, and spot-on.

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