Last year one of my friends gave me a beautiful snow globe. The scene inside is of Mary, Joseph and Jesus of Nazareth. They are portrayed in a stylized way, elongated and elegant. The parents lean into each other in a protective attitude toward their child. Their posture reminded me somehow of the way bare trees lean into the winds of autumn.
The first time I shook the snow globe, what moved inside wasn’t snow. The couple was enveloped by flying particles of light, like mica, like sand, moving, blowing – hard, in a wasteland of desert emptiness. Suddenly I was watching this lonely family unit as they struggled to safety in Egypt.
Hot tears fell on my cheeks, stinging like the sand, and I found myself saying to my husband “They’re just so alone out there . . .”
Jim Schlecht is a Clevelander and a founder of the Metanoia Project. He has made a life’s work of helping “people who stay outside.” These words he uses to describe his beloved ones, the street people of our city, touched me in much the same way as had the snow globe.
Both are ways of understanding our aloneness in suffering. Staying outside is something we all do, for different reasons at different times. Sometimes it seems we just cannot achieve the oneness we seek. At other times, it feels impossible to even seek it.
During Advent, those who follow Christ are asked, in a way, to stay outside what our increasingly commercial culture imposes upon us from ever earlier in November. We are asked to remember that we are not mere consumers but wanderers who journey through our lives in search of doorways to the truths we all share. We are asked to remember that our time here is temporary and that it is pure gift. At heart the world and we who inhabit it are good and reflect the infinite love of our creator.
But things go wrong in our world, too, and our impulse is always the same: we seek a savior who will swoop in, gather up the enemies and punish them and make sure it never happens again. We blame. We fix. Finally, and all too often, we burn the memory and cover up the ashes.
What we are given, not once but for eternity, is no less than the living presence of God.
God – born in a stable, in a city street, on a battlefield, in a kindergarten classroom. Bringing peace, whether it be on a silent night or a terrible, pain and fear filled Friday morning. God was there in the Newtown teachers who gave their lives to protect the children, in the first responders who rushed in, knowing nothing but that they were needed, in the children who held each other’s hands, in the parents who waited in anguish, in the dead, in the living. God was there.
People of faith must be inside-outside people. We are community while at the same time standing outside when the community’s values don’t echo those of the Christ. We are asked to love the sinner while rejecting the sin. We journey inside to discover the peace we seek to bring to our world. We know the paradox of an all-powerful God who takes on the pain of mankind and suffers with us.
What is our first reaction to violence? Unfortunately, it is often more violence. Anger, fear, powerlessness in the face of such a senseless tragedy – all are emotions that must be vented. It’s so easy to find a scapegoat or latch on to the first available simplistic solution that presents itself.
Growing up in a Catholic school and family during the 60s, it was frequently suggested that I “offer up” my pains and concerns. That saying isn’t used much anymore. Somewhere we switched our focus away from redemptive suffering, acknowledging that it had not been balanced by a proper focus on the other side of the paschal mystery – Resurrection.
And that’s a good thing. But did we perhaps go a bit too far?
Are we still a people who are willing to “offer up” some of our own comfort or pleasure for the sake of others? What would I be willing to give in return for a different ending for Sandy Hook School? Just about anything that is mine to give. But time only goes in one direction, so that’s meaningless.
What would I offer to salve the hearts of mothers and fathers whose grief is beyond comprehension?
It’s easy for me to say we have to give up guns. I’ve never had one so I wouldn’t miss it. I wouldn’t mind giving up violent entertainment since I don’t enjoy that, either. I don’t play video games, especially ones where there are guns and shooting.
Where is the place where each one of us says, “Wait a minute, that affects ME.” That’s the place I have to go to “offer it up.” I have to go there, honestly admit that this is going to hurt and make that choice. The heroes of Newtown can show us how.
Hopefully, as a people, this tragedy has made us see that only love, the selfless love that gives rather than taking, can change hearts and history.
For today, my offering is nothing more than my tears. I will sit with the reality of what happened in Newtown. I will know that this is not the first such event and chances are it will not be the last. I will not jump to conclusions as to how this can be fixed, but go inside to bring my feelings of powerlessness in the face of senseless violence before the God of the universe – who willingly became human to share our predicament. I will stay with the Christ as he dies with little children and with thieves, with selflessly giving teachers and with confused, angry killers.
We don’t know when the time for sharing our sisters’ and brothers’ grief will be over. We don’t know when we will laugh again. We can only echo these words, found in the book of the Prophet Jeremiah, and later, when Matthew explains to us another tragedy, the one that sent Mary and Joseph to the desert with their infant son:
“A voice was heard in Ramah, Sobbing and loud lamentation; Rachel weeping for her children. And she would not be consoled, since they were no more.”