Editor's Note: The following is based on Glenn's monologue from November 14, 2016.
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day is one of the most powerful songs ever, if you actually know the story behind it. The song is based on a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow that helped him find his way out of a dark and dreary place.
It was the middle of the Civil War, and Longfellow's son, who was severely wounded, had returned home. His wife had already died, the same way the majority of women died early --- by catching on fire. She was cooking over the stove in the kitchen, which was an open hearth, an open fire, wearing one of those big, huge dresses, and it gets too close to the embers in the fireplace and catches fire. She couldn't put it out and called for Longfellow, her husband who got on top of her and tried to put her out. He also caught on fire and horribly burned and scarred. It was Christmastime, and he could hear the cannons roar.
Now, put yourself back into that time period. Even at the end, Abraham Lincoln did the most unpopular thing he could do. He stood in front of a crowd on his second inaugural address, and said, We have to bind the wounds of this nation. We have to go comfort, feed and help those who have borne the sorrows of this war. He didn't want to punish anybody. He didn't want vengeance. He wanted everybody to go home and be an American again. Go home and concentrate on your family. Go home and work on your farm. Go home and love each other.
Nobody wanted that. It's the reason why Booth shot him. Booth knew there was hate in the hearts of the country, and if he just killed Abraham Lincoln, it would all start again. He would be the rebel that had the balls to finish the job, and the South would rise again in their hatred.
It didn't happen --- and that was what Longfellow heard in the bells. His family had forever changed. His wife was dead, imagine the despair. He heard the peal of the bells on Christmas Day, and said, There's no God. The second verse says, I hear the roar of the cannons, and they mock the song.
We have gone through time periods in our history much worse than this. But there were people of faith that held us together.
I read a lot of de Tocqueville this weekend, Democracy in America. Here was a guy who came from France, from overseas, to watch us. We get the idea of American exceptionalism from him. He watched and wondered how America was doing this, what her people had that made the country special.
At first, he thought it was the abundance of land. That you could go anywhere, and with land you could start all over again.
And then he thought, Maybe I'll find it in the courts, because there's justice here. Maybe I'll find it in Congress. Maybe I'll find it in the president. It was in the Founding documents. He finally realizes that, no, those things were the effect, not the cause.
The effect was a by-product of people of faith. He didn't even know if Americans believed in their own religion because he couldn't search their hearts. He did know this: Americans all knew that without something holding them together and to a higher standard of virtue, the whole thing would collapse. They will fight for each other's religion because they know, even if it's not theirs, they know it's what's holding them together.
He said one of the most amazing things he discovered was the missionary program in America where the rich paid for missionaries to spread religion. While he didn't like Catholics much, he recognized that even Catholics were doing this, but not for the same reasons as in Europe. When he talked to the people spending loads of money to fund these missionary trips, they were spending it because they knew, at some point, America may fail. They wanted to plant the ideas and the faith and the virtue elsewhere. So if America failed, there would be some place else that would hold up these ideals and free the world.
We don't even think that way anymore --- and there is no place else to go. I keep thinking that maybe God's going to start all over, and it will start in China because that's where the church is awake. And maybe He'll start it in China because they've gone to jail for what they believe.
George Washington made a point of Thanksgiving. Abraham Lincoln made a point of Thanksgiving. They all knew that if we would humble ourselves and beg for forgiveness, that God would bless us and our land.
Do you know that we didn't even celebrate Christmas for a good portion of our history? Not until the late 1800s did we actually celebrate Christmas. We didn't close a store. We thought that was garish. We thought that was actually wrong. We thought it would be too flashy, that Christ's birth was too holy to even talk about in the open space and say, I have to have the day off. It was too holy. You went to church, and you went to work. That's who we were.
In the 1930s or 1940s, during the Great Depression, FDR knew that we had to give thanks and we needed to praise God on Thanksgiving. But that has nothing to do why we celebrate it when we do. It's locked in now --- but it wasn't always. Sometimes Thanksgiving would be the last weekend. Sometimes it would be two weekends before, but now it's locked in. And the reason is because FDR said, We need that extra week of shopping. It will help the economy.
We've gone from a country that wouldn't even openly celebrate Christmas because it would be too garish, to taking one of the most sacred American holidays of Thanksgiving and moving it because it's good for the economy. We need that extra week of shopping.
There is no God. God is asleep. God is dead.
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep.
The wrong will fail, the right prevail. The peace on earth that we are promised, it's peace on earth to men of good will. That's what the actual translation is: Peace on earth to men of good will. That's in short supply. And maybe for the next five weeks, we should try to figure out how we all could be men and women and children of good will.
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