This past Friday, Dec. 21, 2012, I sat in a morning meeting with two colleagues at the Chancery of the Diocese of Juneau in the St Ann Center. While in the meeting, at exactly 9:30 a.m., the Church bell at the Cathedral started to toll 26 times for the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. The ringing of the bell was in response to Gov. Sean Parnell’s request encouraging Alaskans to observe a moment of silence remembering those killed in Newtown, Connecticut. At that moment, our meeting went silent. I didn’t count the number of times the bell rang, I just thought about the families having to live with the tragedy of losing a loved one. We paused to remember the young innocent children and the educators who tried to protect them.
In my article two weeks ago entitled, ‘Tidings of Comfort and Joy’, I spoke of those who face terrible sorrow during this time of joy. Now, as a nation, all of us have been touched by a horrible tragedy, and this festive season underscores the absence of these innocent people.
For us in the Catholic tradition last Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, was Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete means “rejoice”, and the Scripture readings at Mass that day encouraged us to rejoice because Christ is at hand.
But coming a day and a half after the unspeakable events in Newtown, CT, how could any of us rejoice? Confusion, grief, anger – yes – but rejoicing? Even the darkness of the days during this time of year seem a sad reminder of the cruel darkness of the terrible fate those small children and their brave teachers.
But despite the darkness, at Christmas, Christians throughout the world do rejoice that Jesus, the incarnate Word of God, was born into our world. Not to condemn the world, but to save it — to liberate it from evil and sin. This was good news then and continues to be good news in our own time.
Three days after Christmas we will commemorate the Feast of the Holy Innocents. On that day we remember how King Herod, fearful that his throne was in danger because of the news of ‘a newborn King’, ordered his soldiers to kill all the boys under the age of two living in or near the town of Bethlehem. Jesus and his parents, Mary and Joseph, were forced to flee as refugees and make their home in Egypt. (Mt. 2:1-18)
The sobering realism of this feast reminds us that Jesus was not born into a benevolent or welcoming world. Although greeted by the angels and shepherds on the night of his birth, he was almost immediately threatened by the powers of hatred and violence.
In the Christian tradition, we read from St. John’s gospel: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” (Jn. 1:5) Each of us is called as well to be the light of God’s love and truth shining in the darkness.
In these recent days we have witnessed that light in the actions of the school teachers who sacrificed their lives trying to save their students. We have seen that light in the outpouring of love and support for the grief-stricken families and surviving children of Sandy Hook Elementary School and for Newtown. And we see that light too, in our new determination to find a way as a society to end the violence and killing in our country.
Last year, Pope Benedict XVI, in his message on the birth of Christ, said, “‘Come to save us!’ This is the cry raised by men and women in every age who sense that by themselves they cannot prevail over difficulties and dangers. They need to put their hands in a greater and stronger hand, a hand which reaches out to them from on high. Dear brothers and sisters, this hand is Christ, born in Bethlehem of the Virgin Mary. He is the hand that God extends to humanity, to draw us out of the mire of sin and to set us firmly on rock, the secure rock of his Truth and his Love. The very fact that we cry to Heaven makes us true to ourselves: we are in fact those who cry out to God and were saved. God is the Savior; we are those who are in peril. He is the physician; we are the infirmed. Jesus Christ is the proof that God has heard our cry.”
Merry Christmas to you and to your loved ones.
(On Friday, Dec. 28, at 7 p.m. the Cathedral will celebrate a Mass for the Feast of the Holy Innocents, in remembrance of the children who died at Sandy Hook School and all children who are the victims of violence. All are invited.)
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.