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Tragedy and Christmas

Reflections on the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., and the holiday season

Last Friday afternoon, the day of the unspeakable tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I stayed late in the office cleaning up a few odds and ends. Preparing to leave, I looked up from my desk, and there was a Wake Forest student with real pain on his face and tears in his eyes. Before I could say a word, he asked if he could make a simple request. “Could you do everything possible to make sure that nothing like this ever happens at Wake Forest?” I tried to give him every assurance of all the emergency planning that we have done and would continue to enhance into the future.

As we talked, I learned the acute difficulty he was having in comprehending such a tragedy. He knew people from the area; his mother was a primary school teacher. His confusion mirrored that of many of us. How could such senseless violence invade the lives of people, so much like ourselves, going about their daily rounds? How could it happen to innocent children? And why at this particular season of the year – when one’s mind turns to peace and joy and the carols intone that all is calm and bright?

As we parted, I reflected on his anguish and my own. Do normal patterns of life and understandings of faith make sense in the face of stark tragedy? In my own thinking, it is helpful to remember that the actual story of Christmas was never like the Christmas card ideal. It is the story of desperate times, of a young couple on the move – she unwed but pregnant – who found no room in the inn. In the face of Herod’s intentional rage against children, the young family had to flee for their lives into Egypt. The significance of that first Christmas is that hope can break into desperate and tragic times.

The essential message of Christmas, like that of Hanukkah, is not addressed to those who bask in good times. It is for those in need, for those whose world may have been turned upside down, for those who know sorrow.

The 15th-Century German Carol “Lo, How a Rose Ere Blooming,” captures the paradox of life that blossoms not in the balmy days of spring but in the bleak mid-winter:

“Its fairest bud unfolds to light,
Amid the cold, cold winter,
And in the dark midnight.”

Life springs up in the face of darkness.

The Hanukkah celebration, which just ended, commemorates the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabees defeated the mighty Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century B.C. Those who opened the Temple only had enough oil for one day, but, miraculously, it lasted for eight. A traditional Hanukkah prayer gives thanks to God in this way: “You in your abundant mercy rose up for them in their time of trouble, pled their cause, executed judgment, avenged their wrongs, and delivered the strong into the hands of the weak…” Kindling the Hanukkah lights for eight days acknowledges the deliverance of a small struggling people in an hour of great need.

A big problem with the holidays now is the idealized view of all being merry and bright: new fallen snow, happy families exchanging gifts, merry carolers around the fire and sleigh bells ringing in the background.

Unfortunately, that is not where most of us live. We know agony and loss. Our fears do not vanish during the holidays. And though we try to rise above pain and trouble, we never feel quite as festive as the season dictates.

Today, Christmas does not provide easy answers to the mysteries that grow out of tragedy – any more than it did for fearful shepherds or puzzled Magi. Sometimes we are left with few words and many tears. Yet it does provide a message of hope amidst pain. The Moravian Christmas hymn expresses this yearning: “Morning Star, my soul’s true light, tarry not, dispel my night.”

This season, we face the holidays against a backdrop of sadness and loss. These realities encourage us to re-evaluate what is important. They draw us to seek comfort among families and good friends, to hold each other tight. They call us to become more thankful, more generous and more committed to embracing those who grieve.

Let me close with a prayer given this past weekend by Father Kevin O’Brien of Georgetown University:

“Gracious God, we have no words to name the depths of this despair. We pray that your spirit may lift the darkness in our hearts into the light of Your love. Give eternal rest to those killed this week in Newtown, Connecticut. Bring consolation to their families. Touch us with Your mercy; bind our wounds in the comfort of each other, and grant us hope in Your peace. Amen.”