Our hearts are heavy with sadness today after the events in Newtown CT on Friday morning. Once again we have been plunged into darkness and grief. Once again we ask the questions, questions we have asked many times before, which no one can answer, but we ask anyway. We are stunned and dazed, left to ponder the horrific aftermath of an awful tragedy: 28 children and adults never coming home again, their laughter and their voices forever silenced; their parents and families inconsolable with grief; their town, their school, their church families shattered; and the rest of us angry, confused, dumbfounded, saddened, discouraged, fearful, resolute, defiant, devastated, overwhelmed, numb. The president echoed our sentiments, saying “as a country, we have been through this too many times. Whether it’s an elementary school in Newtown, or a shopping mall in Oregon, or a temple in Wisconsin, or a movie theater in Aurora, or a street corner in Chicago, (and might I add, or a university in Blacksburg) – these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children. And we’re going to have to come together and take meaningful action to prevent more tragedies like this, regardless of the politics.” It is not his responsibility as president alone to take action, or of any of our political leaders. For the sake of the fallen, none of us can walk away from this tragic event indifferent and unmoved. For the sake of the survivors, we must recommit ourselves to living meaningful and fulfilling lives, to treasuring our children, our friends, and our bond with all people of goodwill, to living our Christian and Catholic faith in defiance of darkness and hatred and injustice and violence. We are not powerless in our grief. Rather, we possess grace and blessing beyond measure to turn around the tide of sorrow and despair. We cannot let evil overcome us, for surely, we can overcome evil with courage and faith and goodness and love.
On this third Sunday of Advent, we hear the prophet call out to the children of Israel weary of exile and oppression. “Shout for joy … be glad and exult!” But they are not inclined to listen. They are heartbroken and desolate. They cannot even imagine living without misery. “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior.” But if God is in our midst, why do we suffer so? Does God not have power to protect and defend us? Does God not desire our well-being and happiness? Is God not willing to act on our behalf when danger and death hem us in on every side? Now to be fair, we certainly have heard stories in scripture and in times past of God’s swift and saving action on behalf of his people. But we find it perplexing at times that God seems silent and disengaged. Is it that God is not always concerned or sympathetic to our predicament? Does God play favorites? If we had answers to these questions, we imagine we would be more trusting of God. But we know that God did not spare his own Son when evil men rose against him. And by the merits of his own Son’s suffering and death, God accomplished the greatest good.
With these our sinful and selfish eyes, it is impossible to comprehend the fullness of what God has in mind. So in the midst of our overwhelming sorrow and distress, we cannot wrap our heads around the prophet’s invitation to “shout for joy … be glad and exult!” Then in his letter to the Philippians today, Paul does the same thing. “Rejoice in the Lord! … I say it again, rejoice! … The Lord is near.” But if the Lord is near, why do our hearts grieve and ache with disappointment? When will our darkness be over? When will our misfortunes end? Again, a well-crafted answer would bring us immense comfort and relief. But when Jesus invited others to follow him, he did not promise them an easy life. When Peter reminded Jesus that they had given up everything to follow him, he told them, “There is no one who has given up house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands for my sake and for the sake of the gospel who will not receive a hundred times more now in this present age …, with persecutions, and eternal life in the age to come.” This is the version from the gospel of Mark (10: 29-30). He just had to stick “persecutions” in there, didn’t he? But then he also did say that if we want to come after him, we must deny ourselves, pick up our cross every day and follow in his footsteps, that from Luke (9: 23). And he bore his own share of heartache and suffering, the rejection of the religious and civil leaders of his time, the betrayal of one of his inner circle, the abandonment by his friends, the insults of the mob that cried for his death. How can we, his own friends and followers, expect to be treated better? We need to trust that as God did not abandon him, so he will not abandon us. And perhaps with our suffering, God might accomplish something good.
I need to say something about Bishop Sullivan while I’m on the subject. For all his faults and imperfections, Bishop Walter F. Sullivan has been for the church of Richmond the embodiment of God’s welcome, extending to all people the compassion and healing of Jesus Christ. There are people who do not like him, who since his death have denounced him for his faults. But he is in good company, I strongly believe. He welcomed women to partnership in church ministry. He welcomed racial and cultural minorities to live their Catholic faith to the full. He welcomed families, children, the elderly, the homeless, the disadvantaged, by opening parishes, schools, nursing homes, and outreach ministries across the commonwealth. He welcomed gays and lesbians, seeking to ease their alienation, challenging them to faithfulness. He welcomed people of other Christian traditions to dialogue, and to celebrate our common heritage. He welcomed inter-faith communities, Jews and Muslims, and various people of goodwill, to uphold human dignity, and work for peace and justice. And he welcomed me when I came home to Virginia from NYC. My departure from religious community was a very painful experience, after only three years as a priest, but I will not bore you with the details. I was living with a heavy sadness I did not understand. At that particular point in my life, I was not hopeful I would find joy again. I poured out my heart to him, eager for any hope he might offer. I still remember what he said. “It doesn’t matter if you stay in Virginia or if you return to New York, but the church cannot afford to lose another priest.” It is because of Bishop Sullivan that I am here, that I am willing to embrace the cross, and that I continue to love my priesthood and God’s holy (and crazy) people.
The crowds that gathered with John at the river had one question, “What should we do?” And John did not tell them anything outrageous. “Be compassionate, loving, hospitable, uncomplaining, just.” We shine when we reach out to our sisters and brothers, like Jesus, like Bishop Sullivan. It is reason enough to be hopeful and thankful. It is reason enough to rejoice.