On last Friday, the day of the horrible tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut, I was two days into a visit to my son and daughter-in-law in Nashville, Tennessee. It was to have been a pre-Christmas celebration, fitted in before the celebration of the actual day that Karen B. and I will have with our dear friend Karen S, who arrives in California on December 25th to stay with us for a few days. Now the shadow of all those deaths falls on us, on those we hold dear and on those whose loss brings unimaginable pain. Eugene Peterson says that silence is sometimes the only response: our silent presence with those who mourn, the only blessing we can offer.
When I am in Nashville, which is often, it is my custom to go to Saturday morning Mass with my friend Kathy. It is a simple daily Mass at St. Ann’s Catholic Church in Sylvan Park. On a good morning there might be 20 parishioners present. As I enter the sanctuary and take a seat, I notice that there is less visiting and more praying than usual, perhaps honoring the dead in their silence. In the few minutes before the liturgy begins, I raise my eyes to the representation of Jesus on the cross that hangs on the front wall. I think of the people of Newtown who have flocked to the St. Rose of Lima Church for the prayer vigil that began within just hours of the news. No doubt there is also a crucifix image like this above their altar.
Out of the depths of memory I hear the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was imprisoned and finally executed during the Nazi regime. While in prison, and reflecting on how God might be present in the circumstances of the Third Reich (I don’t have my usual library available here, so forgive me if I’m misrepresenting DB’s context), he wrote in a letter to his best friend, “Only the suffering God can help.”
I also remember what one of my mentors, William Sloane Coffin, wrote (http://www.pbs.org/now/society/eulogy.html) in a sermon delivered ten days after his 24-year-old son, Alex, died in a car accident. In intense grief, he gave us all these words I can never forget: “My own consolation lies in knowing that…when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.”
Maybe we want to think of God as all-powerful and all-knowing, totally in control of everything and with a plan for each of us. God the micro-manager! And maybe that’s an idea of God that’s adequate for the everyday-ness of our lives, although (for me at least) that’s at best a debatable proposition. How anyone could think that anything about the events of last Friday in Newtown are in any way a reflection of God’s will, or part of some divine plan, is just beyond my comprehension. (Mike Huckabee, I’m talkin’ to you….)
From where I stand, the God who comforts is the God who enters into our human suffering, fully incarnate in our human life and our death. God’s broken heart is somehow, in the great mystery of the Incarnation, joined with our own broken hearts. And so, somehow, the crucified Christ on the wall of St. Ann’s in Nashville is oddly comforting to me, and I hope he is the same to all those who have that image before them in these days.