Fr. Lawrence Farley
Christmas is a hard and heartrending season for any who have recently experienced loss and bereavement, but perhaps no Christmas will be harder than for some families in Newtown, Connecticut this year. I refer of course to the horrifying events there of December 14, when a gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School around 9.30 in the morning and began shooting, leaving 26 victims dead, 20 of whom were children between the ages of five and ten. Look again at the date of this disaster: it happened just ten short days before Christmas Eve. No doubt the presents for most the children there had already been bought by their parents, brightly wrapped, and placed on the Christmas tree, awaiting the eager hands of the children for whom they were intended to rip off the wrapping and open them. For about 20 families in Newtown, that anticipated happy moment will now never come. Christmas will not be merry in Connecticut this year. One thinks not so much of the story of the birth of Christ as of a darker part of the Christmas narrative: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children. She refused to be comforted, because they were no more” (Mt. 2:18). This year the Herodian slaughter of the Bethlehem innocents was seen in Newtown.
The depth of the tragedy was reflected, I thought, in the pauses of the President, when he spoke to the nation shortly after the events in his role as what one journalist called the country’s “consoler in chief”. He spoke for just under four minutes, and yet had to pause twice for some time to keep control of his emotions. Many times in that short address he wiped his eyes. As he said at the beginning of the speech, when he first heard the news that morning, he reacted “not as a President, but as a parent”. The horror afflicting Newtown reached out across the miles and seized us all—especially us parents. Obviously no rhetoric can to do justice to the immensity of the pain felt, and no words can assuage the grief. But as Christians, what are we to think?
First of all, we think of our inter-connectedness. The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews bids his readers “remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them; and those who are ill-treated, since you also are in the body” (Heb. 13:3). Everyone of us who remains “in the body”, who shares bodily existence in this world, is connected to everyone else, and their sorrows are somehow our sorrows as well. We are not so many separate islands, living in splendid isolation from each other, impervious to their pain. The pain of Newtown is our pain as well, and in some sense, the slain are our children too. At the very least, we need to keep everyone there in our prayers.
This human inter-connectedness finds is redemptive fulfillment in the Church as the body of Christ. Of all the many metaphors used to describe the Church—brotherhood, vine, city—the image of a body holds pride of place in the New Testament. And that means that we share a deep connection to our fellow Christians—deeper than the bonds of brotherhood, deeper than the link between two branches on the same vine, deeper than the unity of citizens in the same city. In a word, we share the same life. Just as the various limbs of a single body share the same life and are therefore hurt by the same pain, so Christians share life and pain with each other. When a weight falls on one’s foot, it is not the foot alone which suffers—the pain that landed there is diffused throughout the entire body, and all the limbs respond by comforting the afflicted member. And when one of our fellow Christians suffers, all of us are called to co-suffering. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26). In the world and in the Church, we are all linked. This Christmas, we all live in Newtown, Connecticut.
Secondly, we remember that sin—all sin—is senseless. God made us as rational beings, with the ability to think and reason, striving to understand and make sense out of the varied world around us. We therefore rebel when we find something that is altogether senseless and which outrages reason. The question “Why?” pushes itself to the front, and we ask why this happened, how God could have allowed this. We instinctively seek to make sense of the senseless. That is, I think, at least partly behind the immediate response of looking for causes of the tragedy, and of finding blame, and ways to fix it. Is mental illness the cause? Is the problem rooted in the availability of guns in the U.S.? Do we need more security at schools? These are all valid questions, and the discussions around them should take place. But these discussions cannot make sense out of the senseless. All sin is essentially senseless, and perverse, and defies reason. We see this in the primordial defiance of Satan. Consistent Christian tradition portrays him as originally an angel who fell from grace, a being once perfect like all the other angels, living in eternal bliss, but one who chose to rebel against God’s rule and against love, choosing misery over bliss, and haughty, hopeless defiance over blessed submission. Why? Such a choice, once made before the creation of the world, was irrevocable, and made no sense. Yet all sin partakes something of this senseless defiance, and therefore eludes any attempt to understand it. We can never hope to truly understand such sin as came into focus Friday morning December 14. The way forward is not through reason, but through God’s consolation.
Healing here comes not through trying to use this tragedy to make better laws (though that is in itself a good thing), not by making this a tragedy to end all tragedies, as the First World War was the war to end all wars. Healing comes through the embrace of Christ, letting our tears run down our cheeks to rest on His shoulders. God does not offer us adequate explanation in this age. He offers us Himself. In running into His arms, we can find some peace.
But (as a final point), some kinds of peace and healing can only be found in the age to come. Some hurts are too deep, some shocks too traumatic, to be dealt with while we live in the body. Of course we will go on with our lives—there are other children to care for, and jobs to do, and joys to experience, and people to love. Life does not end, even after something as terrible at December 14 in Newtown, Connecticut. But, I suspect, some tears remain, and refuse to be dried. Some pain will persist, until the dying breath. Behind the masks that society and convention rightly bids us wear, the heart’s open wound still bleeds, and nothing in this age can help it. But healing does come eventually for those who seek their healing in God.
In the Apocalypse (addressed as it originally was to people who were experiencing persecution, and death, and bereavement), a final healing is promised. St. John saw in the Kingdom a great multitude which no man could number, standing before the throne of God and the Lamb. He was told, “He who sits on the throne will shelter them with His Presence, for the Lamb will be their shepherd and He will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” (Rev. 7:15f)—yes, even the tears shed at Christmas time in Newtown, Connecticut. We, all of us, will one day have to pass through the dark door of death, and step into the age to come. Some of us will step through that door with tear-stained faces, and with wounded and weary hearts. But there we will find healing at last, and hearts will be lightened at last, and all tears forever wiped away.
In thinking of that day, I am reminded of a description of it by C.S. Lewis, found in the closing lines of his Narnian Chronicles. The great lion, Aslan, greeted the children as they stepped through the door of death. “He said to them, ‘All of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadowlands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.’ And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion, but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”
This is the real hope for Rachel, weeping for her children—a new morning, and a reunion, and a new story, and a Kingdom. That story will go on forever. And every chapter in it will indeed be better than the one before.
(As posted on oca.org) Fr. Lawrence Farley, formerly an Anglican priest and graduate of Wycliffe College in Toronto, Canada in 1979, converted to Orthodoxy in 1985 and then studied at St. Tikhon’s Seminary in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. After ordination he traveled to Surrey, B.C. to begin a new mission under the OCA, St. Herman of Alaska Church
Fr. Lawrence is the author of many books including the Bible Study Companion Series, Let Us Attend: A Journey through the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, and A Daily Calendar of Saints. He has also written a series of Akathists published by Alexander Press, and his articles have appeared in numerous publications.
Fr. Lawrence has a podcast each weekday on Ancient Faith Radio and writes monthly for Sounding, the blog of Orthodox Christian Network. Father lives in Surrey with his wife Donna; he and Matushka Donna have two grown daughters and two grandchildren. He regularly updates his blog, "Straight from the Heart."