As I am sure many clergy throughout America did this past Sunday, I preached about the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, Connecticut that occurred on Friday, December 14.
Update: If you would like to hear the recording of this sermon as it was preached, go here.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
I normally do the major part of my sermon composition on Thursday, and as with most Thursdays, I had my sermon completed by the end of this past one. But then Friday happened, and I realized that I had to write a new one. So please forgive me if it’s not quite as organized and polished as I would prefer.
If by some happy chance you have not yet heard, on Friday morning in the city of Newtown, Connecticut, a young man killed his mother and then went to the elementary school where she worked and proceeded to gun down twenty children aged six and seven, as well as six women who worked at the school and then, finally, himself.
Newtown is only about thirty miles away from my father’s hometown of Southington, Connecticut. My grandmother still lives there. I’ve driven through Newtown many times on my way to see her, and I’m fairly sure I’ve stopped there a few times. I know what towns in that area are like, and they are deeply ingrained in the years of my father’s youth.
I don’t watch television very often, so when I heard about the shooting, it was through reading it in online news, as well as some reports on the radio. The sense of spectacle that television brings to the news is not really something that I prefer to have in my life. So the means through which I learned about the shooting were somewhat less sensational. Nevertheless, no matter how we learned about this story, it is horrifying.
I’ve thought a good bit about what happened over the past couple of days, as I’m sure that most of you have. Some of us have children about that same age, including me. I’ve also read lots of analysis on this, including a lot of strong political opinions about things like gun control, school security, mental illness, and so forth. No doubt there are politicians already poised “not to let a good crisis go to waste” as soon as a few news cycles have passed and it wouldn’t be too unseemly to seize the moment and turn it to political advantage. If there is one thing we can count on from our political class, it is that they will use moments like this to advance their particular agendas.
What I want to address, though, is the horror of this experience and its spiritual impact, something that the politicians cannot really help us with, though I think some folks want them to and therefore trust them a bit too much in moments like this.
There are many things we could say about the spiritual basis for what happened in Newtown, which of course is now at least the seventh killing spree we’ve had in America this year. We should rightly point out that such things are simply another extension of the culture of death that our society pursues. Is it any wonder that human life occasionally can mean nothing to someone in our nation, with decades of pursuing a foreign policy in which we have trained young men and women pre-emptively to kill an “enemy” who has never attacked us, with decades of pursuing a national lifestyle in which the lives of the most innocent and helpless of us all are at the whims of “choice,” with presidential “kill lists” and drone assassinations, with the dehumanization of nearly anyone accused of a crime as an “animal” or a “monster,” with the militarization of our police forces who all too frequently conduct SWAT team style raids on the wrong houses and kill and traumatize innocent people with near impunity, with the subjection of the God-given sanctity of the human person to the whims of social redefinition and the shifting winds of culture? Is it any wonder?
We could also lend some perspective here and point out that, even while we stand horrified at what still is fairly rare in statistical terms, on the day that twenty children were gunned down in Connecticut, nationwide more than 3,500 children were killed by abortion, never seeing the light of day. While we are shocked at what happened in Newtown—and rightly so—there are people here in our own parish community for whom mass killings, even of children, at the hands of gunmen and suicide bombers is the normal, daily life of family members and friends in the Middle East, where people have been driven out of their homes, their schools and churches burned to the ground, their priests tortured and murdered, their families attacked, held for ransom, killed, etc., etc.
There are many things we could use to gain some perspective—not to tell us that what happened in Newtown on Friday wasn’t that big of a deal, but to help us make some sense of it all. And it may also help us to gain some wisdom for what we can do and what we can say.
At its base, our problem is this culture of death, the culture of the diminishing of the human person. And there are moments when we see this diminishing go too far, like on Friday, and we may be tempted, perhaps momentarily or perhaps more compellingly, to begin to lose our faith. How could God permit this? Is the price for us to know God’s goodness really so high? How can we say that suffering can bring about redemption with this kind of suffering?
Such a question is asked in extreme poignancy by the character Ivan Karamazov in the Dostoevsky novel about the brothers by that name, and yesterday I read it quoted by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, a devout Roman Catholic, in a column he wrote for this horrible tragedy. Here’s the passage he quoted from Ivan, along with some of his commentary:
“Can you understand,” he asks his more religious sibling, “why a little creature, who can’t even understand what’s done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fist in the dark and the cold, and weep her meek unresentful tears to dear, kind God to protect her? … Do you understand why this infamy must be and is permitted? Without it, I am told, man could not have existed on earth, for he could not have known good and evil. Why should he know that diabolical good and evil when it costs so much?”
Perhaps, Ivan concedes, there will be some final harmony, in which every tear is wiped away and every human woe is revealed as insignificant against the glories of eternity. But such a reconciliation would be bought at “too high a price.” Even the hope of heaven, he tells his brother, isn’t worth “the tears of that one tortured child.”
Douthat goes on to point out that Dostoevsky does not provide any rhetorical argument against Ivan’s complaint against God, a God Ivan might be willing to admit exists, but Whom he rejects because His “price” is “too high.” Rather, Dostoevsky instead demonstrates the goodness of God through the love of his characters in transcending suffering. Douthat writes that this pattern is also found in the New Testament itself, in which God’s love for mankind is established not through a philosophical argument, but through the suffering and death of God Himself as one of us. The cross is the hour of glory for the Son of God.
In case you did not hear, there were also some moments of glory on Friday. At least three of the women killed that cold day in Connecticut put themselves between the shooter and the children—a 27-year-old teacher named Victoria Soto, the school’s 47-year-old principal Dawn Hochsprung and special education teacher Anne Marie Murphy, who was 52. Victoria hid her students in a closet, confronting the shooter and telling them the kids were somewhere else. He gunned her down. Likewise, Dawn physically tried to apprehend the shooter and was also killed for it. Anne Marie died shielding students from the shooter with her own body.
There may well be more stories like these, and we can also compare them to the account of the 14,000 innocent boys two years old and under who were killed by King Herod as he turned his rage toward the infant Jesus, the King of the Jews who threatened him so much. We celebrate their feast just a few days after Christmas.
While reasonable people can disagree on the causes and remedies for evil moments such as these, we ultimately should remember that all death, no matter its cause or its character, is fundamentally evil. All death strikes against God’s purpose for His creation. He did not create suffering. He did not create death. Death is a declaration of war against God Himself, because God is life. God not only creates life by beginning, but He continues to give life, even after physical death.
While of course we have many theological explanations that can be given for how evil came into this world and why God permits man to continue to have free will even in the face of man’s evil, what we should remember and what we must live in our lives is not any explanation. Explanations are useful only insofar as they get us to the business of living. Rather, what we should live is Christ’s conquest of death. We don’t have to figure out death. I don’t think we can. Rather, we as Christians are here to grapple with death and to engage it as an enemy.
As Fr. Alexander Schmemann wrote in his brilliant little book For the Life of the World: “Christianity is not reconciliation with death. It is the revelation of death, and it reveals death because it is the revelation of Life. Christ is this Life. And only if Christ is Life is death what Christianity proclaims it to be, namely an enemy to be destroyed, and not a ‘mystery’ to be explained.”
The truest answer to violence is love. The truest answer to death is life. The only prevention for violence is for the heart to have no violence within it. We can legislate all we like, but the violent heart will still find a weapon and the opportunity to use it. We cannot prevent evil through any system devised by mankind. But we can grapple with evil and defeat it, but only with love—real love, too, not just some sentimental feeling, but self-sacrifice. Those women who died with those children demonstrated love. In that moment when they chose to give their lives for the children in their care, it did not matter if they had happy feelings about them—probably some of those kids annoyed them on one day or another. What mattered was the act, the act of defeating death with life. Christ said, “Greater love hath no man than this, than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
There is no argument, no philosophy, no policy that can properly answer what happened on Friday at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It all rings hollow in the end, doesn’t it? But as the columnist Ross Douthat also writes, this horrible story comes to us at a time when another story is almost upon us.
You see, in nine days, we will celebrate Christmas. And yes, the story and spirit of Christmas are largely the stuff of sentiment these days. There is the cute baby Jesus, the happy shepherds, the adoring wise men, and so on. But if you look at the icon of the Nativity of Christ, you will also see that the manger is shaped like a coffin, that the myrrh brought by the wise men is the kind of thing that will be used to anoint the dead Jesus, that the swaddling clothes are very much like burial cloths. In the true story of Christmas, Herod rages and the road to the Cross is already begun.
And that is our answer. We stare evil in the face, and we say again and again: Christ is risen!
To the Christ Who is our life be all glory, honor and worship, with His Father and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.