On the weekend of the First Sunday of Advent, I shared a beautiful Advent carol with the congregation. The first verse goes like this:
Each winter as the year grows older, we each grow older, too. The chill sets in a little colder; the verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.
Little did I know that within two weeks of that presentation, the "verities we knew" would be shaken and seem untrue. Those verities include the belief that we should all be kind and compassionate to one another, that someday peace may become a reality in our world, and that violence can be curbed and hopefully eliminated in our world. We know we still live in a world that is broken and troubled; our country is still involved in war in a far-off place called Afghanistan; there is violence and upheaval in parts of the Middle East and we continue to see and hear news stories every day about murder and abuse in our communities.
But tragedy has hit in a very pronounced way in these past few weeks. A little over a week ago in our area of New York State, four young people - all high school students - were involved in a serious automobile accident that claimed the lives of two of them and left the other two seriously injured. The outpouring of grief and support was overwhelming as communities tried to come to grips with the loss of these well-loved students. The cause of the accident seems to have been excessive speed on the part of another young man who struck the students' vehicle causing it to flip over and eject some of the passengers. I was struck the other day with the sentiment expressed by one of the surviving students who said that he wanted to "forgive the other driver in person because that is the right thing to do." I wonder how many of us could bring ourselves to offer such forgiveness in the light of the loss of friends and injury to ourselves. This young man is to be commended for his belief.
If that wasn't enough, yesterday in a small community in the state of Connecticut (our neighboring state), tragedy struck again - this time in the violence of a young, obviously disturbed, man who murdered his mother in their home and then went to the neighborhood elementary school and opened fire within the school; the result was the deaths of twenty children (ages 5 to 10) and several adults including the school's principal. This tragedy has rocked not only this community but the reverberations have been felt around our country. Our President said it best when he stated in his statement yesterday: Our hearts are broken today...these are our children. One person I know compared the slaughter to that found in the Gospel of Matthew when Herod murdered the children in an attempt to rid the world of the Messiah. We can truly refer to these children as the "holy innocents of Newtown, Connecticut."
Police and other authorities are trying to piece together information to help us all understand what may have motivated this killer (who committed suicide after killing the others) to carry out this tragedy. Whatever the reason, it has caused everyone to pause and realize what a precious gift life is and many parents I know reached out in a special way to their children yesterday to let them know they are loved.
This weekend in the Roman liturgy, we celebrate Gaudete Sunday - "Rejoice Sunday." It comes half way through the Advent season as we look forward to celebrating again the coming of the Messiah into our world. I must admit it is hard to rejoice at this time given the tragedy of yesterday. What can we make of it? What is there to rejoice about? I believe that at times like this, only faith and prayer can get us through it all. I truly believe that God was present there yesterday in Newtown with the children, the teachers, the parents (who either lost a child or had a surviving child) and community members.
I believe the sentiment that I wish I could express has been expressed best by my friend, Father James Martin, S.J. of America magazine who offered the following prayer. I leave you with this to that all of us can find some comfort amid all the tragedy.
Where were you, God?
We are crushed with grief, God.
We cannot bear to think of so many people killed.
We cannot bear to think of children being killed.
It is unthinkable to us, the worst tragedy.
Where were you, God?
How could you let this happen?
Why is your world like this?
We are sad and angry and confused.
But God, we know that you know what it means to have a child die.
For your Son died a violent death.
And we know that your Son understands grief.
For he wept bitterly when his friend Lazarus died.
And he was moved with compassion when he saw suffering.
His heart broke like our hearts do.
He cried like we do today.
We know, too, that your Son raised Lazarus from the dead.
And that you raised your own murdered Son from the grave.
As a sign of the eternal life you have planned for us.
The life into which you know place the victims, whom you loved, and love.
We know that you understand our terrible anguish.
You accept our bitterness and our confusion, too.
And we know that your Son is beside us, weeping with us.
We know that you are still with us, God, in the darkness.
In our compassion for the families and friends of the victims.
In the love that moves us to care for one another.
In the anger that drives us to put an end to violence.
As your Son tried to do in his time with us.
Most of all, eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
And let perpetual light shine upon them. Amen.