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Read more from Daniel C. Peterson on his blog, Sic Et Non. Cover image: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
I published this Christmas-related column in the Deseret News on 20 December 2012:
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s first wife, Mary, died after a miscarriage. His second wife, Fanny, died in a freak household fire. Trying to save her, he himself was burned so badly that he couldn’t attend her funeral and, for the remaining decades of his life, couldn’t shave. His iconic image, still today, features a long white patriarchal beard.
“How inexpressibly sad are all holidays,” he wrote on the first Christmas after Fanny’s death. One year after her passing, he commented, “I can make no record of these days. Better leave them wrapped in silence. Perhaps someday God will give me peace.” His journal entry for Dec. 25, 1862, reads: “ ’A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Late in 1863, his eldest son, Charles, was severely wounded fighting for the Union in the American Civil War. He made no journal entry at all for Christmas that year.
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day,” he wrote on Dec. 25, 1864. But the war still raged, and he was still in pain. “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.” But then his mood shifted. “Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: ‘God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; the wrong shall fail, the right prevail, with peace on earth, good will to men.’ ”
Mere words are wholly inadequate in the face of great human suffering, brought home to us in an especially horrifying way by last week’s report from Newtown, Conn. However, the central idea of Christianity, which we celebrate at this very season, is that God hasn’t confined himself to mere words.
“The Word was made flesh,” reports John, “and dwelt among us.” And, therefore, “the Light shineth in darkness” (John 1:14, 5). The God of Christianity is no unmoved mover, no absentee landlord, distant and unfeeling — let alone a hanging judge, a kind of cosmic Inspector Javert. Describing the Savior’s response to the death of his friend Lazarus, John 11:35 is the shortest verse in scripture but among the most significant: “Jesus wept.” “Then said the Jews,” in the next verse, “Behold how he loved him!”
Christmas is a child’s holiday, a day of wonders for kids. But it’s infinitely more.
Almost a century before the Savior’s birth in Palestine, the New World prophet Alma explained that Jehovah would come to earth, among other reasons, “that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities” (Alma 7:12).
The Prophet Joseph Smith learned by revelation in 1832 that Christ “ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth” (D&C 88:6).
There is no sorrow, no despair, no pain, no hopelessness that the Lord doesn’t know from direct experience. He didn’t just read about these things in a book.
In March 1839, Joseph Smith languished miserably in the jail at Liberty, Mo., while his people, because of their trust in his teaching, were being driven from their homes during a brutal Midwestern winter. Seeking divine comfort, he was given an appalling list of sufferings and injustices and then gently reminded that “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122:8).
The comfort seldom comes instantly. “Thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment,” said a revelation to Joseph (D&C 121:7). However, they lasted more than five years, ending only with his death at the hands of a mob.
But Julian of Norwich, the early English mystic (d. 1416), was nonetheless right when, under inspiration (as she claimed), she summed up her Christian hope in the simple words, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
And this is true only because the Savior (Immanuel, “God with us”) came into the world. The light of Christmas shines even brighter after the darkness of Newtown. Because he lives, its victims shall live also. (See John 14:19.)
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
When I was a boy, our ward would sometimes sing only the first three verses of “I heard the bells” — verses four and five, I seem to recall, were in smaller print below the music — and, thus, we would close with this:
People would then serenely close their hymnals and we would move on — and I would want to scream “Aren’t you paying any attention to the words? You can’t close with that verse!” Now, all five verses are included with the music. Hallelujah!