Like so much that he wrote, it’s become a beloved verse of American literature, Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the bereaved mother of five sons, killed fighting for the cause of union.
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Lincoln may have judged his words to be weak, yet they raised the passing into the ageless, at least as long as men and women remember them. That sort of immortality, the cherished memory of the loved and lost, is acknowledged even by those who do not believe in life after death. Yet it is an earthly immortality, only as ageless as words themselves.
Oddly, many of those who believe the soul to be immortal tend to think of our time on earth as having little resonance in the afterlife. As many see it, one either passes or fails the test that we call life, and then eternity comes to erase what happened on earth. But why do we imagine an afterlife that cancels life?
Perhaps it’s a way of responding to time’s troubles. Regret is a great burden of old age. In order to write history, certainly to recall our own, we often must hew away rough edges, ignore the inexplicable, forget what cannot be remembered, and even find a way to recite what cannot be reconciled. Perhaps because we rightly remember ourselves as suffering so in our stories, we’d be satisfied with an eternity that simply stilled the sorrows.
Our Christian belief in resurrection, however, is more than a question of eternity quieting time. Resurrection is Christ claiming the ages as his own, redeeming them from oblivion, drawing them into his story, his own person. The Christ we await will do more than assuage our anguish. His resurrection is God’s great vindication of time’s torment, of that mother’s sorrow. It is heaven’s response to Israel’s boast. “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the hope God gives of being raised up by him” (2 MC 7:14).
Christ chastised those who pictured eternal life as no more than an endless repetition of this world’s ways. “The children of this age marry and remarry; but those who are deemed worthy to attain to the coming age and to the resurrection of the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage” (Lk 20: 34-35). All is transformed above, yet nothing is forgotten.
Perhaps it little matters how much historical controversy surrounds this Lincoln letter. Mrs. Bixby lost two sons, not five; her personal sympathies may have lain with the Confederacy; and some have suggested that the missive may have been penned by Lincoln’s secretary, John Hay.
Yet Lincoln’s words outlived their ambiguous origin. The president’s letter lifted a private sorrow into the nation’s pantheon of cherished memories and meanings. So costly a sacrifice should be acknowledged by a grateful nation, yet our words alone cannot save our sons and daughters from war. It remains a scourge of sin, one more sorrow humanity cannot scour from its story.
That’s why all human words, even the ageless, must give way to the Word of God. Come the end, our words find their rhyme and reason in Jesus Christ, the final author of history, who gathers our stories into his. Christ’s sacrifice conquered sin, and, we believe, it will yet claim our stories, even the sad and the senseless, from its sway.
2 Maccabees 7: 1-2, 9-14 2 Thessalonians 2:16-3:5 Luke 20: 27-38