There’s a single image that keeps coming into my head in light of last week’s events at Sandy Hook Elementary School. If you walk down Main Street and head up the hill toward Old Ship Church and wrap around the bell tower into Hingham Cemetery you encounter a particularly striking gravestone. There’s a full-sized weeping angel draped over a sizable stone marker. The angel’s head is down on top of her right forearm while her left arm hangs over the edge with limp fingers pointed toward the earth. Her body language speaks of utter helplessness and defeat and the statue conveys the emotion of profound grief. A grief that transcends words; a grief that is raw and unrelenting. This has been the posture of a nation shocked by the slaughter of 20 innocent children among the dead in Newtown, Connecticut, and I can’t stop reflecting on this angel of grief. And yet even in the midst of this pain, the angel’s wings remain upright and majestic enfolding the grave marker in a gesture of embrace and a symbol of hope.
I walk up to the cemetery sometimes and just stand in front of that angel. I think about people that I have known and lost over the years. I think about the many people I have buried in my own priestly ministry — their stories, their struggles, their families, their faith. I think about the senseless killings that pervade our world through mass murder and war and acts of terror. I think about the presence of evil in our world and about the demons that drive people to desperation. And I think about the God of all hope who weeps when we weep and rejoices when we rejoice and is present to all who call upon his name.
Faith in the God whose peace surpasses all human understanding doesn’t ease the immediacy of grief. Yet there’s something about a statue so delicately carved into so solid a material. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the fragility of human life built upon the rock of our salvation. As Christians, we place our faith upon the cornerstone that is Jesus Christ even in the midst of our own questions and doubts and weaknesses.
It’s true that human tragedy strips away the non-essentials of life and brings us right back to the things that matter most — love, faith, compassion, and companions along the journey with whom we share these things. It’s also a reminder, in these days leading up to Christmas, that this season isn’t just about a cute yet helpless baby cooing in a stable but about our very salvation. It reminds us that Christmas isn’t just about the trimmings and trappings but about the miracle of God entering the world in human form; a world that can feel so full of darkness.
Finally, it reminds us that for all of the white lights in all of the windows along Main Street, for all the fresh garland adorning white picket fences, for all the beautifully trimmed trees in homes visible from the street, there are people hurting out there. There are people who go without this season; there are people for whom the holidays bring more emotional pain than cheer; there are people living with deep anxiety; there are people who are in the throes of profound grief in a small Connecticut town. Our faith calls this dissonance out into the light and bids us to act on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, the emotionally fragile and the sick, and those who weep and mourn.
In these waning days before Christmas, I can’t help but think about the gifts that have already been wrapped and lovingly placed underneath the tree; wrapping paper that will never be torn apart; squeals of glee that will never ring out; hugs of love and gratitude that will never be felt. Yet amid this season, amid the darkness that sometimes pierces our world, Christians still point to the light of salvation that burns in our hearts and illuminates the world with peace, hope, and salvation even in the midst of despair.