On Christmas Day of 1863, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the poem “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.” His oldest son had been badly wounded in the Civil War the prior month and Longfellow’s wife had died in an accidental fire. Among the lines were these:
And in despair I bowed my head;One week ago in Connecticut, innocent children were gunned down.
”There is no peace on earth,” I said;
”For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
It is not a far leap to wonder if Longfellow was right. Many have asked loudly to Christians this week “Where is your God” and “How could Jesus let this happen?”
Young men storming the beaches of Normandy in World War II, as they lay dying in the sand, would gasp, crying out for their mothers. We should not dare even try to imagine the cries of those children that terrible day — the cries left unanswered; moms and dads not coming to rescue and to comfort.
At Christmas, those who demand to know where God was must be met with compassion, but also clearly with the word “Here.” Christ did not abandon those children. He met many that day with open arms. He comforts now where parents cannot. He shines even now as a light in the darkness for those who are willing to see him.
We have become accustomed in our vernacular to treat evil as the opposite of good or the opposite of God. Evil is not an opposite; it is an absence — the absence of good, the absence of God. The act in Connecticut was evil.
God and good exist. The devil and evil do as well — the incarnation of the absolute void left in the absence of God. The existence of a Risen Lord does not exempt the world, even Christians, from evil in the world. We are all born sinners and sin affects the world as much as sun and rain and air. Bad things do happen to good people and to innocent children still unaware of the extent of human evil. It is the nature of this world and why so many long for the next.
Two thousand years ago Christ was born in Bethlehem. We focus on angels, shepherds, wise men, and the virgin birth. We focus on the miracle. We ignore the rest of the story. King Herod sent soldiers to Bethlehem where they slaughtered every boy under the age of two. The world greeted the birth of the Savior with the slaughter of innocents.
Two thousand years later, in a small town in Connecticut, the cries of children and the sounds of gun fire bring us to reflection and prayer.
And “Jesus wept.”
He weeps now. He welcomes home the little children and calls for us to persevere and, if we will, to turn back toward him and bring our society with us. But our society must be prepared to have larger conversations than whether or not we should regulate guns or bullets. We must discuss mental health. We should discuss the real nature of evil. We should know that in this fallen world sometimes there is nothing we can do.
Longfellow, his wife dead and his son dying, concluded his poem that Christmas Day 149 years ago thusly:
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:Merry Christmas.
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”