When Hope and History Rhyme: A Christmas Eve Meditation

“Peace on Earth” has been called U2’s most agnostic song. Recorded as part of the 2000 release, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, the song’s lyrics were inspired by the Real IRA Omagh bombing in Northern Ireland in August 1998. 29 people lost their lives in the bombing, with another 220 injured. The song juxtaposes slow-building, shimmering, calm instrumentation with lyrics of lament, bitter indignation, and grief. Amid such violent extremism, the narrator rejects glib aphorisms in favor of a more biting critique.

Heaven on earth
We need it now
I’m sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there’s gonna be
Peace on earth

Where I grew up
There weren’t many trees
Where there was we’d tear them down
And use them on our enemies
They say that what you mock
Will surely overtake you
And you become a monster
So the monster will not break you

And it’s already gone too far
Who said if you go in hard
You won’t get hurt?

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line?
Peace on earth
Tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on earth
No whos or whys
No-one cries like a mother cries
For peace on earth
She never got to say goodbye
To see the color in his eyes
Now he’s in the dirt
Peace on earth

They’re reading names out over the radio
All the folks the rest of us won’t get to know
Sean and Julia, Gareth, Ann and Brenda
Their lives are bigger than any big idea

Jesus, can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line?
Peace on earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on earth

Jesus, in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won’t rhyme
So what’s it worth?
This peace on earth

Peace on earth
Peace on earth
Peace on earth

The song opens with a plea for “heaven on earth” to intersect the present. As the names of the bombing victims are being read over the radio, Bono finds it hard to see peace coming to fruition. Trite words do very little to dry the tears on a mother’s face. Indeed, the words stick in our throats, for hope and history do not rhyme.

It may seem strange, but this is one of my favorite Christmas songs. Not because it’s a cheery number…as I’ve already stated, it’s not. But this song finds its way into my heart this time of year precisely because it is a lament, a real one at that. And if you read the Gospel accounts, there was much to lament around the time of the birth of Jesus. There are other songs that extol the moment of his arrival as a “Silent Night” — but “Peace on Earth” takes me back to the cry of Matthew 2. “Peace on Earth” gives voice to the mothers of Bethlehem, lamenting as Herod rips their sons from their breasts and bathes the streets with their blood.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
She refused to be comforted,
because they are no more. (Matt. 2:18, quoting Jer. 31:15)

History provides countless backdrops for a similar refrain. Bethlehem, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Oklahoma City, Omagh, New York City, Paris, San Bernadino…the setting changes but the cry remains the same: “Jesus can you take the time to throw a drowning man a line?”

“Peace on Earth” holds little hope that an answer is coming our way.

What’s interesting is that Bono changed the lyrics to the song in the band’s live performances in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Heaven on earth
We need it now
I’m sick of all of this
Hanging around
Sick of sorrow
Sick of pain
Sick of hearing again and again
That there’s never gonna be
Peace on earth

The song was paired with “Walk On” on the U2 setlist and the medley closed with a chorus of hallelujah (as in the video). Instead of affirming the void of peace, Bono chose to protest this theme in favor of a more inspiring message. Despite it’s bitter (even agnostic) conception, the song has now become an anthem of hope for legions of U2 fans, desperately longing for the day when hope and history rhyme.

In a time of great violence…

Among a people weary and despondent…

When all of our hopes seemed unfounded…

When all of our prayers seemed to fall upon deaf ears…

At the moment when our abandonment seemed most absolute…

A promise was made.

At the intersection of heaven and earth,

A child was born.

One who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God…

Prince of Peace.

His birth was heralded as Good News of great joy for all people.

And He will bring us peace.

Of the increase of his government and of peace, there will be no end.

And hope and history will one day rhyme.

Merry Christmas — Christmas Eve, 2015

This entry was posted in Devotional, Disappointment, Eschatology, Faith, Gospel, Hope, Jesus, Music, Social Issues, Video and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to When Hope and History Rhyme: A Christmas Eve Meditation

  1. Jason says:

    Reblogged this on already & not yet and commented:

    I wrote these thoughts last year on Christmas Eve.

    One year later, I believe them even more.

    Merry Christmas

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