They came across the Ohio River in a line too long to count, decorating the girders of the battleship-gray I-75 bridge with a garland of Christmas lights flashing blue, red and white.
As much as black ribbons on polished silver badges; as much as the silhouette of the bronze cop who stands guard at Cincinnati's police memorial, with flowers at his feet, that convoy of Kentucky cops who came to honor and bury Cincinnati Police Officer Daniel Pope was an inspiring vision of unexpected grace amid unbearable sorrow.
It's always there, like flowers surrounding a casket or a shaft of sunlight through a church window. It seems as fragile as a flickering candle in a deep well of grief. But as we all know - or learn eventually - it always manages to somehow overcome the darkness.
I think that's why we remember our loved ones' smiling snapshots, their hugs, laughter and pranks. It's God's grace, thrown to us like a sturdy rope in a tossing sea.
They way it was explained to me by a much wiser friend, God gives us mercy and grace: Mercy is His way of giving us a break, by withholding something we probably had coming; grace is the gift of something we didn't earn and don't deserve - like winning the lottery without buying a ticket.
I've already bounced too many checks on my mercy account, so I prefer to look for signs of grace. And lately, I've noticed that it often appears where it is least expected.
I saw it the other day when the mother of Cincinnati Police Specialist Ron Jeter was asked how she felt about the man who killed her son and Officer Pope before commiting suicide. Her reply: ''I was raised to believe in forgiveness.''
I saw it the week before, when three high school girls were killed in Paducah, Ky. by a mixed-up kid. When Michael Carneal, 14, opened fire on a prayer circle, Ben Strong left the circle and walked through gunfire to take away the gun. ''You gotta forgive,'' he said later. ''Because if you don't, you carry that around for a long time.'' The day after the shooting, the students prayer group multiplied from 35 to 200. They sang . . . ''Amazing Grace.''
And I saw grace with a human face last winter, when I met the mother of Lorenzo Collins, the escaped mental patient who was shot and killed by two police officers. Through tears, Doris Floyd said she would pray for the officers who shot her son: ''I hope the officers that shot Lorenzo keep me in their prayers the way I keep them in mine. I have faith. That's what keeps me going.''
Faith. Forgiveness. Grace.
Even to those of us who have worshiped for years in the congregation of the religiously obtuse, that message is loud and clear.
The signal of WLW-700 is loud and clear, too, and lately it has been broadcasting a lot of retribution, recrimination and racial division. At a time when our community needs to pull together, talk radio often sounds as jarring as a sledgehammer on a wedge, splitting us apart like a dry log so it can build a fire of outrage.
During the past week, I've heard callers and hosts blame the 911 operators and dispatchers who failed to send help in time, blame cops who didn't follow procedures, blame guns, blame drugs and - you knew it would get around to this too - blame any black people who have dared to protest against the police.
WLW's Bill Cunningham even had a list of known conspirators who helped kill the cops. He named me, our editor and publisher, because The Enquirer has published news stories and editorials that criticized the Cincinnati Police.
I thought: Oh, well. I guess some people have to blame someone. But it made me wonder if the people who gripe about ''Hate Radio'' might be onto something. It made me wonder if all that ranting for ratings during times like this is about as helpful as a drunk at a funeral. It made me wonder what possible purpose can be served by broadcasting calls from people who can hardly wait to twist the tragic shooting of two cops into a lunatic plot of racism . . .
And then, there it was again. Grace.
I flipped on the radio and talk-show host Jim Scott was saying that Dan Pope and Ron Jeter - one white, one black - were the closest of friends who trusted each other with their lives. ''Maybe that's a lesson for us all,'' he said.
I hope so.
That ribbon of police lights spanning the cold and wide Ohio River on a gloomy day was a reminder: At times of tragedy and disaster, we come together and hold hands as one community, one family. No lines on the map can divide us by race or residency.
We have received letters about the shootings from every corner of southwest Ohio and Northern Kentucky. Christy Brock, a ninth-grader from Harrison, sent us a poem: ''Dear God, it's us, Wanting to know, Why did you take, These two men so . . .''
In this season of Advent, our Three Wise Men are two wise women and a wise young man, bearing gifts:
Faith. Forgiveness. Amazing grace.
Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.