Many preachers faced a homiletic dilemma on the Third Sunday of Advent, a day which marked the progress of Advent by offering a word of hope. The first words of the lectionary for that day were “Shout for Joy, O Daughter of Zion,” the priest wore rose vestments instead of purple, and in the second reading St. Paul encouraged us twice to “Rejoice!” The Latin word for rejoice gives that Sunday its common liturgical name, “Gaudete Sunday,”.
The dilemma arose because there seemed so little to rejoice about as the entire nation was steeped in the pain and grief of the death of children in Newtown, Connecticut. One preacher said, “Instead of rejoicing, I despaired of being able to offer a word of hope. What could I say?”
This is one of those sad occasions when we are drawn into the Paschal mystery – the mystery of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ – far more deeply that we wish to be. Most days we utter the “Mystery of Faith” at Mass, and do it without even thinking. But these days are a hard moment when we are called to have faith despite the overwhelming signs of sin and death. It is like living through the biblical descriptions of the saints whose “garments were made white in the Blood of the Lamb.” Here we have the real blood of these children and their teachers and we are supposed to weave the white fabric of hope from it?
Christ has died, Christ has Risen, Christ will come again.
Rejoicing may be more than we can expect to achieve in these days. Yet, there are some consolations in our faith.
First, for Christians the Incarnation means Jesus entered fully into our human condition. The Church has made it clear that he did not just “put on” humanity, as we might put on a jacket, and then take it off when it became uncomfortable. Nor did Jesus merely pretend to be human in some kind of divine ruse designed to make us feel better. No, the Incarnation means that God-in-the-Flesh suffered real human pain and shed real human blood. And he continues to suffer with us. So in some way, Christ feels the pain of this sorrowful day just as we do. And he somehow incorporates that pain into his own suffering.
Second, the empathy we all feel for these children, their families and their teachers makes us more human. Sometimes in the face of tragedy or pain, we are tempted to turn away, to distance ourselves and convince ourselves that this could not happen to us. I realized the other night, for example, that I just could not absorb any more, so I changed channels on the TV. Yet, if we take the Incarnation seriously we know that suffering and even blood are part of the deal. Ultimately, we cannot turn away. We must embrace these deaths not just as a news event, but as part of ourselves.
Dominican Father and former Master of the Order of Preachers Timothy Radcliffe once said that in Advent we must take care not to look for God outside, but to find him inside. “We can patiently wait for his coming now. Not in a helicopter or in clouds of glory. But he comes far more intimately from the deepest wells of our creativity and freedom.”
None of us will even forget the tragedy of Sandy Hook Elementary School. It is now deep within us, part of our lives and part of Christ’s own death and dying. If we wait for anything during this Advent season, we wait for fuller understanding of how this can be, how blood and loss and pain can become the white wool of salvation.
My prayer for each of you is that will open our eyes to see this mystery clearly.