Advent reflection: Carol of the Bells

We were made to worship God. While we should feel it and see it throughout the year, the special nature of Christmas time brings it out in us even more.

The classic Christmas song “Carol of the Bells”—which groups such as Pentatonix have popularized in recent years—speaks to this idea.

Ukrainian composer Mykola Leontovych wrote “Carol of the Bells” in 1914. You may recognize that year as the start of World War I. The Russian Empire, of which Ukraine was a part, was a key warring nation, and in fact the war would lead to the empire’s demise.

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In the midst of this struggle, Leontovych wrote this beautiful song about the glory of Christmas.

In 1916, the composer added the original lyrics, and it was performed for the first time by students at Kyiv (Kiev) University in Ukraine. By that time the war had been raging for more than two years and had already claimed millions of lives. Yet people were now singing this song about “words of good cheer.”

Mykola Leontovych

By 1919, World War I in Ukraine had melded into the Russian Revolution, then civil war, and wars between new and existing countries. Devastating famine also struck Ukraine and other areas. Plus, the so called Spanish Flu had arrived, the pandemic we have learned so much about since the arrival of COVID-19.

But Ukraine had gained its independence, so it decided to send out a National Chorus as a sort of cultural ambassador for the new nation. They wanted to share their music, including “Carol of the Bells,” with others.

Members of the Ukrainian National Chorus had to flee in groups to avoid unrest right at the start of the tour, reuniting further west in Europe. By the time the Chorus reached the United States, the country it represented was no more. Ukraine would be ruled as part of the Soviet Union for the next seven decades.

In 1921, a Soviet agent killed Leontovych, composer of “Carol of the Bells.” While we can never be totally sure of these things, there is evidence he was targeted because of his association with the newly established Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. He may have died because of his faith.

It was here in America that Peter Wilhousky wrote the words with which we are familiar after he heard the Chorus.

In these last two difficult years, someone has likely composed a song that will be played and sung in future years the way “Carol of the Bells,” originating in a time of tumult, is performed now. And it will bring people joy, even if the composer is not still around to see it.

God made you to worship—in good times and bad, now and forever.

The psalmist captures this ideal well in Psalm 150:

Praise the Lord!

Praise God in his sanctuary;

praise him in his mighty firmament!

Praise him for his mighty deeds;

praise him according to his surpassing greatness!

Praise him with trumpet sound;

praise him with lute and harp!

Praise him with tambourine and dance;

praise him with strings and pipe!

Praise him with clanging cymbals;

praise him with loud clashing cymbals!

Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord!

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