Last July, I met someone from my home state at a writer’s conference on the east coast. We had both been to the conference the previous year, when it was held near us, but we hadn’t had a chance to meet. This year, we not only met, but found out we had both driven halfway across the country to get there.
He was an incredibly nice guy, and he told me how he and his wife had met at the conference some years prior and attended every summer, no matter where it was held. Since I met him so near the end of the event, we both said we looked forward to talking again next year.
Sadly, I just heard he was killed in a car accident yesterday. It’s hard to believe, not only because he was young and enthusiastic and just getting started – but because he was practically the only person I talked with to any real extent. This kind of news always hits harder when you’ve had a chance to really meet someone, however briefly. And yet the fond sadness I feel for a virtual stranger is nothing compared to what others are dealing with now. Two weeks before Christmas, his young wife and their new family have lost a husband and father at a time when they were expecting to celebrate.
We always hear about these things happening “so close to the holidays” and most of us are fortunate enough not to experience it. But however small the percentage may be, there are many who face tragic loss this time of year. My heart goes out to them in ways I can’t express. No tragedy is easy, but to lose a loved one when you’re still hiding their Christmas presents in the closet – especially for those who have been together for a relatively short time – must hurt in a way that nothing else can.
The only thing that could make it more tragic, in my mind, is if the loved one were a child – and especially a victim of murder. (I’m thinking of the horrifying case of seven-year-old Athena Strand, who was strangled last week by the psychopathic FedEx driver who delivered her Christmas gift.) I can’t even imagine how anyone in that situation would ever find joy in the holidays again. It breaks my heart.
Earlier today, I was reading the story of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who lost his bride to illness within four years – when their age and relationship weren’t all that different from the young couple I met. Twenty-six years later, Longfellow lost his second wife to a terrible accident (again, very much like the couple from the writer’s conference). Within weeks of this second tragedy, the Civil War broke out in America, and Longfellow saw his entire world crashing down around him.
On December 25th, 1863, he wrote a poem called “I Heard the Bells On Christmas Day” to express his sense of despair: “There is no peace on earth, I said.” And he had reason to feel that way. I have no idea what people like Longfellow and my would-be friend’s young widow have to endure. But as both of them professed the same faith I do, I know where they find hope, their “comfort and joy” in sorrow.
Don’t get me wrong. I would probably face the loss with much less grace and faithfulness than people like them. But I also recognize that’s a character flaw of mine. It’s easy to say otherwise, that everyone grieves differently – and to be sure, they do. But there’s a reason we admire people who face tragedy with their heads high and their faith intact: it’s because we recognize their strength of character. I would rather hope and try to emulate that character than accept the fact that I can’t.
Longfellow’s poem (which obviously became a song) ends on a positive note, inspired by the sound of Christmas bells he could hear ringing around him: “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep, ‘God is not dead, nor doth He sleep’.” Even in grief, Longfellow knew that God was still there. Like anyone (even Christians), he might have asked, “Where is God?” But however much we’re hurting, we should already know the answer. It’s the same answer we would’ve given to countless others who suffered when our lives were going great and our faith had not yet been shaken as theirs. If we knew the love of God was real in the good times, despite the suffering of others (even those who believed in Him), what right do we have questioning it when the suffering comes to us? Did we think their suffering was less real or important than ours? If we could trust in God when so much of the world faces pain, how can we not trust Him if we’re asked to do it ourselves?
I don’t say this lightly. It terrifies me to think that God may allow tragedy in my life that I’m not ready for. But that’s a sign of my own weakness, not a sign of God’s indifference. Again, I know right now that He’s real and He loves me, though billions of people are facing tragedy and despair throughout the world. If asked, I would tell them that all of our pain in this life is a result of sin and mortality and free will, which God allows in His grace so that we might come to know Him of our own choosing – so that we might recognize Him not as the cause of our problems, but as the solution.
“Where is God?” we might ask. To paraphrase something I once heard in a barber shop, He is exactly where He’s always been – even when we ignored His suffering for us.
There was only one person ever truly undeserving of the pain he endured. Yet he came into this world for the very purpose of suffering on our behalf, so that everything we go through in this life would be worth it. Because Jesus died on the cross, we can look forward to an eternity without suffering.
It’s a sad and terrible thing to hear what some people have to endure in life, especially at Christmastime. But for those of us who understand what the season means, we can ultimately find peace. It may not help right now, when the grief is fresh and things are at their worst; I wouldn’t expect it to. The point is, we have something to believe in that can answer those difficult questions.
Why does God allow something like this to happen, especially during “the most wonderful time of the year”? I don’t know. But as Christians, we can face the grief and still have hope, because we know what makes this time of year wonderful. The Christ child wasn’t born to make us happy here on earth. He was born to share in our sufferings so that one day we might suffer no more.