As the nation and the world mourn with the families whose lives were shattered by the devastating and terrifying violence in Newtown, Connecticut, we turn to God begging of him not only help, but the question of why. As grief gives rise to lamentation, the Church invokes the cross of the Christ, finding in it not only God’s answer and a reason to hope, but also a mission to put love where love is absent. Father Steve Grunow offers his homily for the third Sunday of Advent.
Today on the third Sunday of Advent it is the custom for the Church to mute the penitential character of the Advent Season and call the Church to rejoice.
This spirit of joy is expressed in today’s first Scripture from, an excerpt from the Old Testament Book of the Prophet Zephaniah:
“Shout for joy Daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty Savior!”
Really, I’m sure many will take a pass on that invitation this year.
Given what took place on this past December 14th in the town of Newtown, Connecticut, such words might seem hollow. I won’t rehearse the details of the terrifying slaughter of innocents which have now been fused into the mind of the nation. How can we look at such a horror and not be tempted to despair?
Many will cite Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazoz,” evoking the stark argument one the characters in the novel makes (a character named Ivan) to justify his refusal to accept the claim that God could be a God of love. The argument concerns the apparent indifference of the deity to the suffering and death of children. If God knew what has going to happen or saw what was happening and did nothing to stop it, how can such a claim that God is a God of love be true? The argument is devastating in its impact on the reader of Dostoyevsky’s novel.
It is, like the experience of evil itself, something that one doesn’t forget.
The Church’s great spiritual teachers and masters have, over the centuries, produced arguments concerning God and the terrifying reality of what is called the “mysterium iniquitatis”- the mystery of evil. Those arguments remain sound, but in the face of evil’s appearance, they fall silent, giving way to grief and to wonder.
Faith, if it is genuine, is not about safety or certitudes. The Book of Genesis presents faith as the experience of a terrifying darkness. The Book of Job calls into question our reasons to believe in the face of suffering. The prophets evoke faith in the midst of a catastrophe in which it seems that God abandons his people. When Christ permits himself to experience what faith can feel like, he waits for the moment of the cross to do so.
In other words, authentic faith is not naive. It is not simply about comforting thoughts and feelings. It is not a refusal of reality and the raw facts of life. Faith is not the decision to live in some kind of mythological fantasy.
Nor is faith a kind of “can do” attitude in which we “will” to believe what is not actually the case. Faith is an act of trust— trust that beyond even appearances and feelings, what is revealed to us by God is true.
Where God was and what he is doing in and through the events that took place in Newtown, Connecticut, or for that matter, anywhere in this dark and very troubled world in which we live, is something that is not easy to discern. It would be unseemly to be glib and propose that we have can have clarity about what God is doing and why. We see things in this world, as the Apostle Paul remarked once, “as though in a mirror darkly,” which means, what we can makes of this world yields distortions.
We believe that Christ can clear our cloudy vision and enable us to see, but that means that we see things as they really are, not as how we might want them to be.
If we peel back the veneer of sentiment that has come to cover up the story of Christmas, indeed the story of the Gospel itself, we see that it not only hints at, but actually includes, a story as terrifying as what happened this past December 14th in Newtown, Connecticut.
The Gospel of Matthew records that the birth of Christ occasioned the most brutal of responses from the fallen powers of this world- the tyrant king Herod ordered the murder of the children of Bethlehem. Those orders were carried out.
The Christ child was rescued. But the children of Bethlehem were not. The Church has always proclaimed that the shadow of the cross is cast over the light of the manger- whether we want to see it or not, the cross is there.
And it is here too. To look at the cross is not an easy thing. But look we must, because the cross is what God reveals to be true. It is that in which we make our act of faith.December 14th, this past Friday, is the day on which the Church remembers the saint and mystic, John of the Cross.
John of the Cross once remarked that in terms of this world, where there is not love, we should put love, and then, there we will find love. St. John was saying that we should do what God does. God in Christ puts his love in the midst of a world that has time and time again refused it. This is his mission. He goes with his love into the lovelessness of the human condition. It is into those shadows that he casts his light and sets up his cross.
The cross indicates that he even puts his love in the midst of suffering and death and does so in such an extraordinary way that he is able to change the very nature of both.
This we believe. It is in that revelation that we Christians make our act of faith.
But, it is also something that we Christians are to imitate. We are meant to be the ones whose act of faith in expressed and manifested to the world in our willingness to do what God in Christ does. And if there is anything that we should do now, it is precisely that.
Where love seems absent, that is where we must go, and put love there.
Father Steve Grunow is the Assistant Director of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.