By Daniel Schantz
“A man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3, King James Version).
Sorrow does not take a holiday at Christmas. One of America’s most comforting Christmas anthems, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” was composed by a man fluent in the language of grief. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was a popular professor and poet at Harvard in 1850, but he paid a price for his greatness.
Although he loved students, he found teaching to be “a grinding mill.” He suffered from stomach distress, arthritis, vertigo, and depression. At one point he said, “I hate the sight of pen, ink, and paper.” In midlife his eyes failed, and his wife became his scribe.
Longfellow lived through radical change when his quiet, romantic New England life was interrupted by thousands of European immigrants arriving to work in mills and factories, triggering racial conflicts. His peaceful world was disturbed by new technology: the scream of train whistles, the “clang clang” of fire engines, and the roar of factory machines. Then came the distant thunder of Civil War cannons.
Longfellow’s first wife, Mary, died early on, as did one of his daughters. In midlife, his second wife, Frances, was severely burned when her dress caught fire from a candle flame. She died the next day. Longfellow was left desolate.
It has been said that if a man can be cheerful when everything goes wrong, then his faith is genuine. Longfellow’s poetry virtually sings with hope! His favorite words were life, heart, joy, love, and God. When he got the news that his son, Charles, had been wounded in the Civil War, he sat down and wrote, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail . . .”
Our Lord, like Longfellow, was well acquainted with grief. He was surrounded by swarms of desperate people, longing for healing. His own students often misunderstood him. His enemies stalked him and finally prevailed, hammering him to a cross and then hiding his battered remains in a sealed and guarded tomb..
It looked like the end of the world, but from the gutter of grief came the most positive sentence ever spoken: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in Me will live, even though they die” (John 11:25).
Today, at the Lord’s table, we remember the “wild and sweet” words of “peace on earth, good will to men,” made possible by our Savior, who transformed grief into the gift of everlasting life.
Daniel Schantz is a professor emeritus of Central Christian College of the Bible, Moberly, Missouri.