Ben Vegors spent Christmas Eve 1944 on a bombing mission over war-torn Europe. Allied ground forces had been hit hard in the Battle of the Bulge and badly needed air support. The crew returned safely, but needed rest, yet early the next morning, they were sent back into the fight.
Christmas morning, the enemy flak was not as accurate as expected and the bombers completed their mission, yet one was hit. Flak penetrated the plane and caused an explosion. Soon, the plane's outboard engines were on fire. As the tailgunner on a forward plane, Ben faced backwards and saw it all.
The plane veered out of control, endangering others in the formation. As Ben watched, nine crewmen managed to bail out of the burning plane. But none of their parachutes opened. They either panicked and pulled their rip cords too soon, or the lack of oxygen at 25,000 feet above sea level affected their ability to think clearly. All fell to their deaths.
Over the intercom, Ben's navigator told him the plane had been Clarence Hamm's, a close friend.
Clarence had a premonition of death. He'd said to Ben, "I am afraid that I am going to die during this war, and I want to be right with God before I do."
Ben was numbed by the news that Clarence had been aboard. His mind kept replaying the horrifying scene, and his thoughts became bitter at what had happened to Clarence and the others.
Where was God when I needed Him? Where was God when Clarence needed Him?
Why would God allow this awful war? Why did God allow Hitler to destroy so many people and nations?
In his raw pain, Ben felt helpless and angry. God seemed far away and unwilling to help.
Ben went through the post-mission interrogation, and helped clean the guns for the next mission. He went through the motions, but his stomach was tied up in knots. Later, he sat in an empty mess hall eating cold turkey. A dark weight pressed down on him, and Clarence Hamm was on his mind.
Gradually, Ben became aware of music playing. A sergeant had rigged up speakers in the mess hall, and the BBC broadcast of Handel's Messiah was being heard by the weary airmen. Soon Ben's attention was arrested by the triumphant affirmation:
The Lord God omnipotent reigneth
King of kings and Lord of lords
King of kings and Lord of lords
And he shall reign forever and ever
Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!
Suddenly, Ben was freed to remember the full range of the good news: God is in control and will have the last word. This is what the life, death and resurrection of Jesus means. God can resurrect the dead, creating new life where before there has been only the void of death. God can reverse time and restore all good things.
Without knowing the answers to all mysteries, Ben realized that Clarence Hamm was in God's hands. It had been a day full of tragedy, for the nine airmen and for many more. But the life, death and resurrection of Jesus reminds us - especially in tragedy - that God will encompass tragedy and evil, place a boundary around it all, and not allow the darkness to have the final word.
At Christmas, we celebrate the coming of Jesus into our confusion and darkness. He fully embraced our pain and fear and even our death. The light he shines includes the central moment of history, when God raised him from the dead in order to give this hope to all mankind: God will have the final word, not evil.
God's final word includes making all things new. This is the promise of God we celebrate at Christmas, Good Friday and Easter, and throughout the year.
My thanks go to my friends Scott Reardon, on whose book this article is based, and the Rev. Ben Vegors, senior chaplain at Walla Walla's Jonathan M. Wainwright Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
Thank you for allowing me to share this story.
Merry Christmas to all! A great light shines into our world!
The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church, 628 Lincoln St., in Walla Walla. He can be reached at 509-525-6872.