Sandy Hook, Longfellow, and Peace on Earth

US-CRIME-SCHOOL-SHOOTINGOn December 14, 2012, our nation was shocked by the horror of a gunman opening fire at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.  When the chaos was over, twenty children, six teachers, and the gunman were dead.  It was the second most deadly mass shooting by a single killer in United States history.

The horror of Sandy Hook stood in stark contrast to the joy and celebration of the Christmas season.  For me, it immediately brought to mind the words of a great American poet who found himself in a similar Christmas season of seeming hopelessness.  During the American Civil War Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lost his wife in a tragic fire, and in 1863 his son, a Union soldier, lay badly wounded in a hospital.  The seemingly endless war was at its height, and all around were conflict, death, division, and strife – a distinct absence of peace and goodwill.  Longfellow heard the church bells ringing the celebration of Christmas, but there was no joy in their pealing for his heart that was overwhelmed with grief and depression.  In that spirit, he penned the words:

I heard the bells on Christmas day,
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill toward men.

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, goodwill toward men.”

In the wake of Sandy Hook, many of us shook our heads and wondered, Of all times for something like this to happen – the Christmas season.  No one who was touched by that tragedy would ever be able to celebrate Christmas in the same way again.  But when I recalled to mind the fourth verse of Longfellow’s great poem, I began to think that there may be no better time to take heart:

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor does He sleep!
“The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
“With peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

The good news of the incarnation is that God cares – cares enough about us that He sent His Son to be our Immanuel, God with us.  And in this Christmas season we look forward to a day when Christ will come again – when the spiritual truth of “peace on earth” that was proclaimed by the angels at His birth becomes a literal reality, and “there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain,” and we will live in the presence of Immanuel – forever.

If you have experiences that make the Christmas season a painful time – a loss, a tragedy, bad news, a troubled relationship – rest in this message of the season: God cares, and He is with you.  And trust in the hope that “the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, goodwill toward men.”

~ Matt Kinnell
NHIM Board Chair


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