Advent 3, Year C
“O come thou Dayspring from on high
and cheer us by thy drawing nigh.
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
and death’s dark shadow put to flight.
Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Amen.
("O Come O come Emmanuel," H 56)
Rejoice! Rejoice! Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is nicknamed Gaudete Sunday. Now "gaudete" is the Latin word for "rejoice." Three out of the four readings for today call us to rejoice. Traditionally, this Sunday is meant to be a pick-me-up during the season of waiting and preparation, a foretaste of what the future holds, a little bit of light and comfort as the days grow shorter and the temperature drops. But this weekend hasn’t really lent itself to much rejoicing.
Friday morning a man walked into an elementary school and killed 26 people, then himself. As the day went on, I sat in horror as I discovered the details of what had happened. My heart broke as I saw pictures of panicked children and hysterical parents broadcast on TV and across the internet. Among the dead were the principal, the school psychologist, teachers, and 20 kids. I cannot even begin to imagine how terrified the children must have been as gunshots interrupted their morning lessons. Or what their parents felt like as they desperately tried to find out if their children had survived. Or the grief upon learning that their kid hadn't.
This is supposed to be a happy time of preparation to welcome the Christ-child, of carols and decorating and making travel arrangements, not funeral arrangements.
Whenever tragedies like this happen we can go through a host of emotions: shock, fear, sadness, anger, distrust, and perhaps even numbness. These are all perfectly normal and appropriate feelings; a school is supposed to be a safe place, not the site of a mass shooting. But, unfortunately, cases like these are becoming increasingly common in this country. There have now been ten mass shootings in the U.S. --just in this year, alone: 7 killed in Oakland, CA, in April. 3 African American men killed and 2 wounded in a racially motivated killing in Tulsa, OK, also in April. 5 plus the shooter killed in Seattle in May. 12 dead and 58 wounded in an Aurora, CO, movie theater in July. 6 members of the Sikh community killed as they prepared a community meal in Wisconsin last August. 5 plus the shooter killed in Minneapolis in September. 2 plus the shooter killed in Oregon just this past Tuesday. The shooting in Connecticut Friday. And one more yesterday morning in Alabama, in the hospital where I was born. There have been 65 mass shootings since January of last year (huffingtonpost.com). And it’s not just happening somewhere else; it’s in our backyard. Many of you will remember the shooting 5 years ago that resulted in the deaths of 8 people plus the shooter, just a mile and a half from here at the Von Maur department store. When gun violence claims the lives of 86 people each day in the states (PolitiFact.com), there is no denying that we live in a broken world.
Times like these bring up many questions: Why did this happen? How could a loving God let innocent children die? Why didn't God intervene? Where was God, anyway?
Many theologians have struggled with these questions over the years. There are a myriad of responses, but what nearly all of them have in common is that they believe that evil is a consequence of free will. Evil exists because we can choose whether or not to act out of love, and as we see all too clearly, some choose not to act out of love.
I’m not convinced that we can ever really know the answers to these difficult questions. But I firmly believe that God does not wish tragedies like this to happen. God does not enjoy the suffering of God's people. God does not want parents left staring at unopened Christmas presents under the tree on Christmas morning.
We were not created to live lives filled with pain and sorrow.
I believe this because we worship a God who knows first-hand the meaning of pain, loss, and death. In just over a week we will celebrate Jesus' birth. But the quaint, familiar image of God's Son lying in a humble feeding trough is not the whole story. We tend to forget that shortly after Jesus’s birth, an angel came to Joseph, warning the Holy Family that Herod was not too pleased with all the attention the baby was getting. Mary and Joseph took Jesus and fled to Egypt. While they were gone, in a move reminiscent of that of the ancient Egyptian pharaoh, Herod had every boy age 2 and under killed (Exodus 1:15-22; Matthew 2:16).
Jesus was born into a culture of violence, and eventually suffered a violent death at the hands of the Romans. At the end, stripped of his clothes and abandoned by his closest friends, he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46, a reference to Psalm 22). Christ knows what it means to be scared, helpless, and alone.
We remember Christ’s brokenness each time we celebrate the Eucharist: “do this for the remembrance of me” (BCP 362). We memorialize Christ broken on the cross. But Christ crucified is not the end of the story; death does not have the final word. Christ has conquered death and triumphed over the grave.
We live in the hope that Emmanuel, God with us, will return again someday. "On that day," Zephaniah tells us, "you shall fear disaster no more,"--it will be a time of celebration, homecoming, and rejoicing (Zephaniah 3:15). During times of pain, suffering, anger, and death, we remember the hope we have in Christ. We remember that death is not the end. And we remember that Christ will come again.
Until that day, we pray, O come, o come, Emmanuel.
Huffington Post article
photo of Nebraska sunrise