Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hope in the midst of tragedy


Like you, I come to Church today with a heavy heart.  A heart that is trying to make sense of the tragedy that took place in Newtown on Friday.  In one of my prior assignments, I was stationed just two towns over from Newtown in a parish in New Milford, CT.  These types of tragedies always confound us; always challenge our minds and our hearts; but somehow it seems even more difficult when it happens so close to home.  In the past when we’ve heard of these kinds of things they have been further away – out in the Midwest, somewhere in the South.  Not in our picturesque and peaceful New England. These things are not supposed to happen here.  And yet, here we are today.

What are we to make of all of this?  Some people say things like, “We don’t understand it but it is part of God’s plan” or “God needed another angel” or some other attempt to find an understanding or something that makes sense.  But, I think step one for us has got to be to acknowledge that it doesn’t make sense.  That God didn’t do this; that there wasn’t just a need for another angel or saint or some other story.  Instead, it is the most difficult reality of our lives on earth – that sometimes horrible things happen and they leave us confounded and confused.  Sometimes evil breaks into our otherwise peaceful existence and we are rocked by it.

But, that doesn’t mean that we just have to accept that reality.  Instead, I think that as always God does speak to us in these most challenging of moments.  God is not the author of these tragedies; He doesn’t plan them or condone them.  In fact, they are the exact opposite of Him. God, as St. John tells us, is love itself.  Anything so that is not of love, is not of God.  This act was not of God. 

So, where was God in all of this?  We heard it in our first reading from Zephaniah, “The LORD, your God, is in your midst.”  Evil spoke for a moment on Friday; a horrible moment.  But in the moment-upon-moments since, God has been speaking, present in the police and other workers who ran to the scene.  In the teachers and other staff at the school for whom even the word “hero” doesn’t seem quite adequate to explain what they did; protecting their children, some in even the most extreme way possible.  God has been present in the overwhelming love of parents rushing to the school and taking their children home; in the community that has already gathered and will continue in the days, weeks and months ahead together – holding each other, crying together, comforting one another, helping them get through.

Certainly one of the things that many have said is how this is an added tragedy being so close to Christmas.  That it will be difficult not to associate this time of year with what happened.  And that is true.  The singing of happy songs; the laughter around the dinner table; the ripping open of presents will be muted; perhaps for quite some time.  But, I think that this moment also brings to mind what Christmas is really about.  It’s not about those superficial – even if joyful – things, as much as we love them.  Christmas is about what we celebrate all through Advent leading up to Christmas day; as we heard from Zephaniah.  It is about a God who is in our midst.  Christmas is all about Emmanuel – a name which we hear over and over again means “God is with us”.

What we celebrate in just over a week is the incredible reality that in the darkness; in the struggle and pain that life sometimes brings; in our challenges and in our sorrows – our God chose not to remain distant from us, but that He came into our midst; that He entered our world as one of us; that He came to comfort us; hold us; cry with us; laugh with us; and to be with us in every way possible.  The famous dramatist Paul Claudel said it this way, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.”

This is the hope of Advent.  This is the hope of Christmas.  The darkness is never the end of our story; death never wins the day.  Tragedy is not our curtain call.  For the believer in Jesus Christ, there is always another chapter; one that begins with the Word becoming Flesh.  One that ends with a Savior who conquers even death itself; who even in the midst of the most horrible things we can imagine brings life right out of the grip of death.  In the shock of this moment; in the newness of the pain we feel, it may be hard to see that today; but in faith, in our hearts we must believe it.  This is not only the hope of Advent and Christmas; but it is the hope of Newtown and of this town. It must be the hope that dawns in our hearts.  Jesus wants to fill this moment with His presence.

So, if someone asks, where was God in all of this, you can answer: Evil spoke for a moment; and God has been speaking since – speaking words of love, and comfort and care and hope. Our God is not far away and distant from us, but He is Emmanuel, He is with us; He is here holding us in His arms and comforting us with His words and with His sacraments – His abiding presence in our midst.    

Our God has welcomed 26 new saints into the glory of Heaven.  We pray for them today.  And our God seeks to remind us once again that He is right here in our midst; in our hearts; in our world – reminding us that as we welcome Him with hearts full of grief, we also welcome Him with hearts full of hope in His Son.

May God give birth in our hearts to a renewed sense of hope this Christmas; may He help us to become more and more a world of peace, safety and joy.  May all those holy innocents who are now saints in Heaven, rest in peace. And may all those who grieve their loss be comforted by a God who wants to fill their pain and struggle with His loving presence. “The LORD, your God, is in your midst.”

May the Lord give each of us His peace.


  1. Father Tom, Your words soothe my soul and heal my heart. Your words bring me Bavknto our Lord. Thank you!!

  2. Fr. Tom, I heard your homily at St. Joseph Church this morning. While listening, I wished that the entire world could have heard your words. After you were done, I wished I'd had a recording so I could listen again and again. I am so pleased to have your words to keep. They were perfect. You were vague for those too young to hear specifics, but powerful and comforting to those who understood. Thank you. We were blessed to have you visit, and even more so to hear your words on such a tragedy. Thank you.

    Catherine Norton