From 2012, part of my homily after the tragedy in Sandy Hook:
As some of you know, my office is located in the Catholic Center in Manhattan, on First Avenue. On Friday they were decorating the lobby for Christmas – trimming trees and hanging lights and assembling a small wooden stable, the Nativity scene. As I was leaving work, I stopped to take a look.
This Nativity scene is a little out of the ordinary. While it has all the usual characters, carved from wood – Mary, Joseph, shepherds, animals — it doesn’t have a manger. Instead, the figures are arranged in a kind of semi-circle, and Mary is kneeling, with her arms outstretched – arms that, at Christmas, will hold the Christ child. But now, like all of us this Advent, she is waiting. Her arms are empty.
It’s a poignant image – and, I think, given the events of the last 48 hours, devastating.
In those outstretched arms, we can’t help but notice what is missing. I looked at that figure in the crèche on Friday night and thought of the empty arms of the mothers of Newtown.
We are all Newtown this morning. Those children are our children. The indescribable heartbreak of those parents is shared by the world.
Ironically, in our liturgy, this third Sunday of Advent is a Sunday for rejoicing. We put away the purple and wear rose. The readings point with excitement to Christmas. “Cry out with joy and gladness,” the psalm tells us. “Rejoice in the Lord always,” St. Paul declares. In the gospel, we hear for the first time the phrase that will define the Christian faith for all time: “good news.”
Yet, the news right now isn’t what anyone would call good.
We keep hearing words like “massacre” and “tragedy” and “slaughter.” Mixed in, of course, is another word that we can’t escape: “Why?” I wish I had an answer. I can’t explain it. I don’t think anyone can.
At times like this, God can seem distant, even detached. Yet, this Sunday, we are reassured: He is closer than we realize. “The Lord is near,” Paul writes. And it’s not just because Christmas is 9 days away. It is so much more than that. In the great mystery we are about to remember at Christmas—the Incarnation, the Word made flesh—we celebrate this astonishing fact: God became us. He invested Himself in humanity.
The implications are staggering.
On the five-year anniversary of 9/11, the great Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller spoke about the Incarnation. I’d like to read you part of what he said:
“One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures,” he said, “is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God’s son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in – suffering and death! He didn’t come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn.”
And then Rev. Keller adds this:
“But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock, that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack.”
On TV the other night, they showed the devastated father of a child, hearing the news of what happened and burying his face in his hands.
God is that weeping father.
“The Lord is near.” He knows what it’s like.
As the world marks the 10-year anniversary of this awful event, please take a moment this day to pray for the families of Newtown and the children of Sandy Hook.
In our cruel and often merciless world, may they know God’s consolation and the tender love of Mary, the mother of us all.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord…