New Life In the Face of Tragedy

Easter Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection


Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

On this Easter night, we proclaim with exultant rejoicing Jesus Christ’s triumph over death and sin and humanity’s ancient foe, the devil. Yet amid the joy and gladness that marks this holy night there lingers a hint of sadness, a detachment mixed with unease and sensitivity for some still weighed down by pain, still seeking solace from hurt. Tomorrow marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech that took the lives of 32 students and faculty members, along with the gunman. I was not close to the tragedy myself. Mostly I have been an observer.

Lately I have been reading news articles written by family members of the 32, some of the survivors, and their loved ones. A number have chosen to observe the anniversary quietly[1]. For them the pain is still fresh, still a heavy burden they carry each day. Those who choose to speak often speak of regret mostly for little things, things no one thinks would ever matter, for missed opportunities, for not hugging their loved ones enough, for not showing appreciation enough, for allowing life’s little annoyances to get in the way. Some of the survivors struggle to even speak of the event at all, coping as best they can[2]. Most of the physical scars have faded. More worrisome are the emotional scars, that occasionally bubble to the surface. Some are still startled by loud noises. Some are wary of large crowds. Some have not returned to campus since. It is always a bittersweet memory to recall that last hug, or that last phone call, or that last goodbye. And after the anger subsides, and some form of disconnectedness settles in, and after everyone else seems to have moved on, there still lingers a mix of sadness and unease and sensitivity, along with that huge gaping void. It isn’t something you just get over. It will pass when it passes. And it never leaves two people the same way.

When tragedy hits, it is hard to tell when or how to move on. After the shooting at Tech, university officials permitted students to determine for themselves what they wanted to do next—whether to return to class; and if they do, when they choose; or if they do and change their minds later, that it was fine; or if they choose to not return at all for the remainder of the semester, that was acceptable as well. They offered counseling. I remember a memo from the Vicar General and the Catholic Campus Minister at Newman House requesting priests from  close by to make themselves available if students needed to talk. I did drive down to Newman two days. But healing takes time. And in those early days and weeks after the tragedy, it seemed few people knew what should even happen next. More likely, the burden fell to those within the university community and the town of Blacksburg. Outsiders who got heavily involved were either alumni, or prominent health-care professionals, or official church representatives, or bigwigs from state government.

Here at St. John, we prayed to God for healing, and tried to publicly show solidarity with the Virginia Tech community. But being so far removed from the scene, we mostly grieved in private. It’s been 10 years. How are we different? How have we changed?

A number of good things did result from that awful tragedy ten years ago. Some parents and family members decided to act on their anger, mobilizing awareness for signs of mental illness, and teaching gun safety[3]. Efforts meant to force legislation to address the issue mostly met with frustration, and some refocused on establishing national safety standards on school campuses, and creating scholarship endowments. Clearly, nothing can be done to undo the tragedy. But more can always be done to prevent future tragedies. It all comes down to our willingness to be transformed by the tragedy. As sunshine and rain can produce a rich, bountiful harvest, so it can also produce choking weeds and kudzu. Healthy positive change requires nothing less than a consistent level of intentional commitment and active participation.

The tragedy that was the death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, on a hill outside Jerusalem some 2000 years ago still has power to move us deeply. We are still shaken when we hear in vivid detail how he embraced suffering and death with a clear sense of purpose. We are still stunned that one as gentle and merciful as he could be the object of such vehement and vicious torture. But we believe with unwavering conviction that his death was not in vain. Rather, he has brought about the greatest good, for us all and for the worst of his adversaries, by winning for us pardon and reconciliation with God and with one another through the forgiveness of our sins. No other human death, no matter how tragic, has such power. And though we mourn the death of Jesus on Good Friday with genuine sorrow, we rise from our grief to behold the glory of the resurrection. For “we were indeed buried with him through baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might live in newness of life.”[4]

Now we are so far removed in history from the death of Christ, there can be no true comparison with more current tragedies of the good that can rise from their ashes. But every firm resolve on the part of a follower of Jesus Christ to transform the world is indeed a kind of rising from that most horrible tragedy to newness of life. Because Jesus did not hesitate to hand over his very life for our sake, Christians through the centuries have followed his example and willingly handed over their own lives for the good of their neighbor. Many women and men through the ages have courageously professed their Christian faith even to the shedding of their blood, and their lively witness has sent the gospel to every nation across the globe. Others have founded communities to care for the poor, to educate the young, to tend the sick and the dying, and to inspire one another to live in selfless service and heroic virtue. For generations Christians have raised families to live simply but actively engaged while transforming society from within.

Now comes our turn. The suffering and death of Jesus was a horrific tragedy, but God has raised him to new life. “Do not be afraid!,” the angel told the women who came to his grave early on the third day. “He is not here.”[5] If anyone should come to us looking for Jesus, we have to direct them to the risen Christ, the living Christ by our joyful witness of God’s great mercy through the words we speak, through our actions, our convictions, and through lives of faithful service to the gospel and to the people of God. But it has to be intentional, brought about through active participation. We cannot leave the proclamation of the gospel to chance. We have been sent, because we are witnesses to new life.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!

Rolo B Castillo © 2017


[1] http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/Virginia-Tech-Families-Mark-10-Years-After-Massacre-That-Left-32-Dead-419423274.html

[2] http://abcnews.go.com/US/room-211-massacre-virginia-tech-remembered-10-years/story?id=46701034

[3] http://www.cosmopolitan.com/lifestyle/a9179892/10-year-anniversary-virginia-tech-shooting-survivors-mom-speaks-out/

[4] Romans 6: 4

[5] Matthew 10: 5-6