The words in this post’s title were written by the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1864 in the poem, “Christmas Bells.” This poem was later put to music in the hymn, “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day.” I’ve been thinking a bit about a few of the lines from this hymn and another since the terrible massacre two weeks back at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. The incomprehensible evil of killing young children so brutally has not only shocked and saddened our nation and the world, but also fueled profound debate over exactly what has caused and contributed to this and similar acts. These discussions naturally lead to the place of God and our beliefs in these situations.
In my experience, the answers from those of us who identify ourselves as “Christian” and “religious” are not always reassuring or clear to the world around us. The world and even we will ask questions like, “How could God allow this?” or “Why would God take this child away?” And sometimes our best answer is to echo the words from Isaiah 55:8-9:
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
But that is tough consolation even for believers at times. I find more to lean on in the words of another hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the third verse: “Holy, holy, holy! though the darkness hide thee.” These words look back to the Bible’s teachings like the first chapter of John, where we read “4 In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” It’s easy for me to believe that we live in a fallen world, where the wonderful and awesome gift of free will allows us all to choose for the better or worse. In fact, Longfellow’s poem offers in an earlier stanza,
‘And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”’
In the Christian church, we look to both the Bible and our hymn and song heritage for the beliefs and wisdom that teach and sustain us. Sadly, the Bible offers us other stories of children killed at the hands of madmen–including the Pharaoh against the enslaved Jewish people in Egypt and governor/king Herod the Great against the city of Bethlehem. Many commenting on the Sandy Hook massacre talk of angels and Heaven breaking down in tears. I have to agree that angels and others in Heaven must be crying over this event.
I really believe that there are tears in Heaven on a daily basis as they watch all kinds of terrible consequences arising from our abuse of our free will. We see in the parable Jesus tells of the rich man and Lazarus and from Paul’s identification of a cloud of witnesses that those in Heaven seem to be aware of and concerned for our activities down here–at least to the extent God intends them to be… But there’s nothing to make me believe that God, angels, or others in Heaven are wringing their hands and lamenting the utter failure of all on Earth.
My big reasons to believe this is what we celebrate in this Christmas season. That a great light has come into the world, and though darkness tries to hide it or we let our hold on it loosen because of the darkness we see, God’s plan will make the light Jesus offers the centerpiece the world will use to see. I do really believe that God is not dead or sleeping, but the ways of hate are strong in mocking the offer of peace we’ve been given. Though we allow the darkness we see to cloud our view, there is light for us to see in the love and sacrifice of Jesus and the peace He gives.
I pray with many for comfort, healing, and the peace of Jesus for all those affected by the Sandy Hook shootings. And I hope and pray this has been a blessed Christmas celebration for all of you.