This Sunday has turned out to be much more difficult than any of us would ever have expected.
As Friday started most of us were at work, or thinking about Christmas shopping, or going to the grocery store, or doing any one of the many, normal things that we would be about on a mid-December morning. And then about noon the reports on radio, TV and on-line news sources started breaking the story about the shooting deaths of children and adults at an elementary school in Connecticut – an area that is not very different from our own.
We were shocked, saddened, sickened; the death of children, particularly so close to Christmas with all of the images and associations of children that Christmas carries, hits us particularly hard.
We still don’t know the full story about why and how this happened; there are all kinds of speculations about the shooter’s state of mind and possible mental health issues; questions have once again been raised about the type of weapons civilians should have.
We do know that teachers, staff and students did the very best they could in confusing and dangerous circumstances; certainly lives were saved by quick thinking and calm action and children who trusted adults enough to obey instructions, despite their fear.
We also know that various groups of people are already starting to claim that the supposed “reason” for this tragedy is that our country has drifted away from God, or that because prayer (as part of the official school program) is not allowed in schools that God was somehow not able or willing to act to stop deadly violence against 6 and 7 year olds in school. That is all craziness.
And so here we are, on the Third Sunday of Advent, preparing for Christmas, lighting the pink candle on the Advent wreath because it is Gaudete Sunday – Rejoice Sunday, and the reading from Philippians calls us to rejoice in the Lord always.
What do we do with all that?
We start by remembering that God is always with us; there is not place that God is not. “Bidden or unbidden, God is here” – that is a quotation from Erasmus back in the 16th century, and popularized by Carl Jung in the 20th century. God is with us, within us, all around us.
It is also helpful to remind ourselves that, as awful and as painful as Friday’s tragedy is, and without minimizing it in any way, there are violent and senseless events that take place every day in the US and throughout the world. Bad things happen, evil is a reality, there really are “bad guys” who thrive on violence, hatred and destruction. As Christians, we must not allow ourselves to be lulled into assuming that the world and the human heart are filled only with goodness.
But God’s truth is that violence will not have the last word; that the love of God is more powerful than evil; that people of faith can stand up to fear and hatred and not be overcome.
When God chose to be born in Bethlehem he knew it was a risky business. He knew that human life is often full of pain and sorrow and anger and hatred and suffering. But rather than leaving us to our own devices, God chose to enter into our life so that we would know – once and for all – that we are never alone, that God will never leave us or forsake us, no matter what. And more than that: we will be given peace, and strength, and joy, and wisdom – salvation and wholeness.
And so our ability to rejoice does not depend on our feeling at the moment, or even the events of our lives or our world. We rejoice in God’s presence and provision. We give thanks for God’s love, even when we grieve the death of young children, and rail against violence and evil.
There is much work to be done in the name of Christ in our world: reducing violence by sensible means; healing the sick – including the mentally ill as much as possible; raising children who can be strong, wise and compassionate; making our communities good and wholesome places for all who live in them; caring for the earth and air and water that support our life; caring for the dying and grieving; respecting the dignity of every human person; all of these, and more, are important for us as Jesus’ followers.
But we go about our work in the world knowing we are not alone. God goes with us to each and every place, supporting us, guiding us, giving us peace and strength and courage and grace. And hope. This is what we can rejoice in today – God’s presence and power – even as we offer our prayers for the families who are suffering because of the shooting in Newtown.
God is here, with us, with them and he will not leave us, nor forsake us.
Surely, it is God who saves us; *
We will trust in him and not be afraid.
For the Lord is our stronghold and our sure defense, *
and he will be our Savior. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday of Advent
December 16, 2012