“That woe is me, poor child for thee! And every morn and day, for thy parting nor say nor sing bye bye, lully lullay.”
–Coventry carol, 15th century
In the rhythm of the church year, one is occasionally confronted with profound and tragic ironies. Yesterday, in a small school within a small community within a small town in Connecticut, 28 people were killed by a deeply troubled young man. Twenty of the dead were young children, barely old enough to understand what death is. The survivors have seen their school, a place of safety and comfort, transformed into a place where innocence is lost in the most senseless and violent way imaginable.
Tomorrow, in liturgical churches throughout this country and the world, we will observe Gaudete Sunday (from the Latin for Rejoice!), the third Sunday of Advent when we light the pink candles on our Advent wreaths and remind ourselves to rejoice about the coming of a child into the world. We will hear Paul’s familiar injunction to the church in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”
Yesterday, we were forced to confront the reality of evil in the world. We were reminded that there are people who murder children. Tomorrow, we will be asked to rejoice. If ever there was a time that our liturgical calendar seemed wholly unfair and inappropriate, it would be this week.
And yet, we must remember that Paul did not write to the Philippians from a place of comfort and safety. Paul wrote to the Philippians from prison, uncertain about whether he was going to live or die. Paul wrote to a community threatened by persecution in a city where their proclamation of the gospel was considered suspect and dangerous. Paul was not telling the Philippians to “be happy as I am happy.” Paul was enjoining, nay commanding the Philippians to rejoice even in the midst of uncertainty, even in the midst of pain, even in the midst of persecution, even in the midst of suffering, and yes, even in the midst of death.
We must also remember that the child whose coming into the world we will celebrate in just a few short weeks, the innocent baby who was born in Bethlehem surrounded by his adoring mother and foreign visitors ended his life in the most horrifying way imaginable: on a cross outside of Jerusalem, humiliated and alone. Jesus Christ experienced the very depths of human suffering and came face to face with the power of evil in this world.
Jesus Christ also experienced the depths of human suffering at Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday. As those little children, some too young to tie their shoes, came face to face with evil, Jesus Christ himself stood with them, crying out in pain as each precious life was taken away. Jesus Christ himself stood with the parents, weeping with them as they grieved the loss of those who had celebrated far too few birthdays. Jesus Christ himself stood with those children who survived, sharing fear with those who could not express why they were so afraid.
And we can never forget that even in his suffering, Jesus said “no” to the power of evil. Even as he experienced the very depth of human pain, Jesus proclaimed that through the cross, God has said “no” to evil. Moreover, through the Resurrection, God has promised that death does not, that death cannot have the final word.
During funerals, one of the paradoxes we affirm is that “in the midst of life we are in death.” Even when we are at our most vital, even when we have our whole lives ahead of us, the certainty of death looms before us. On the other hand, we also affirm that “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” Even through our tears, we rejoice that God has come to dwell with us and give us hope. Even through our tears, we affirm and proclaim our hope for life that transcends grief, our hope for life that defeats death, our hope for life that says “no” to the power of evil.
In the days and weeks ahead, we must be careful. We must be careful not to look for easy solutions to the questions raised by this encounter with evil. We must be careful not to dig in our heels and dismiss those with whom we disagree. We must be careful not to assume that there is nothing that can be done about such horrific events. We must be careful not to become numb and must be willing to feel pain. We must be careful to grieve lost lives, lost innocence, and lost promises.
At the same time, we must be careful to remember that even in the midst of deep suffering, even in the midst of profound pain, even when we come face to face with the power of evil, we are called to rejoice even as we remember that God suffered with those 28 souls in Sandy Hook. We are called to rejoice and remember that God said “no” to the power of evil even as God suffered on the cross. We are called to rejoice and remember that through the Resurrection, God has proclaimed that death cannot have the final word.