Today is the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday. In a very special way we are offering this Mass in solidarity with those families who lost loved ones in the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed 28 lives. The 20 children killed were first graders. The whole country has been shaken by this tragic event. Each year during Christmas season we commemorate the slaughter of the innocents described in the Gospel of St. Matthew that recounts how King Herod ordered that the children of Bethlehem be slain in an attempt to eliminate any future rival for his throne. The story harkens back to a similar event in the Old Testament where the Pharaoh has ordered the execution of all the male Hebrew babies.
What has happened in these days in Newtown, Connecticut, is a tragedy of almost biblical proportions that has caused the whole country to stop and take notice. In the inner-city children are continuously exposed to violence, but life in the leafy suburbs is supposed to be safer. Ironically enough yesterday’s newspaper reported on a family who moved back from Europe because “Newtown was a safe community with great schools.”
It is hard to even imagine how deep the pain is of those families whose little ones lost their lives. The children and teachers who survived the attack will long suffer the trauma of being exposed to such senseless violence. It was heart rendering to watch the police leading the children out of the school; telling them to close their eyes so that the images of the slain children would not be burned indelibly into their memories.
The news reports have spoken about how the community has come together to pray and to find strength in mutual support. For those of us who are believers prayer and the firm faith in eternal life is our consolation. These innocent children had a very short sojourn in this world, but our faith assures us that God and his love created them to be happy with him forever in heaven.
In this Eucharist we hold up their parents and families and friends so that our merciful Creator will strengthen their faith and give them the grace to resist the temptation of anger and despair. It is comforting to see how a national tragedy such as this one that people suddenly manifest their concern for each other and their desire to be present to those families who are struggling with such a painful loss.
The carnage in Newtown was not politically motivated like the slaughter of the innocents at Bethlehem or the killing of babies in Moses’ days. It was rather the result of violent behavior arising from mental illness. As the whole country reflects on these tragic events we must recognize our society’s inability to deal with mental illness in a more effective way. It is also a clarion call to initiate effective legislation to keep automatic weapons out of the hands of private citizens. There can be no rational justification for allowing private citizens to have personal arsenals of assault weapons. How many innocent people will have to be slaughtered before the country is prepared to stop this madness?
Today’s Gospel describes the people listening to John the Baptist’s preaching, and they formulate the response: “Teacher, what should we do?” That is the question that is on everyone’s lips today. Let us prayerfully reflect on this great assault against human life and commit ourselves anew to do everything possible to protect innocent human life.
Christmas is about children. It is about the no vacancy sign on the motels in Bethlehem. It is about grieving families of Bethlehem whose innocent children were cruelly snatched away.
The antidote has to be that God’s love enters into our darkness and teaches us how to love and forgive and care for one another. The crowd made up of self-centered individuals must be forged into a community that draws people closer to God and to one another.
As shocking as the news of the mass murder in Newtown Connecticut was on the front pages of every newspaper, I found some consolation yesterday in reading the the obituary of Mary Ann Fischer, who died recently at 79 years of age. Mary Ann and her husband Andrew received much notoriety back in 1963 when in addition to their six children, Mary Ann gave birth to quintuplets.
There was a two-hour parade through Aberdeen, South Dakota, on October 14, 1963, one month after Mary Ann Fischer gave birth to four girls and one boy at St. Luke’s hospital –the first quintuplets to survive in the United States. About 50,000 persons including Aberdeen’s 24,000 residents were on hand for the ceremonies. A highlight of the occasion was the presentation of five medals from Pope Paul VI to the Fischers. I was in the seminary at the time and remember the joy and excitement that reverberated through the entire nation as people joyfully welcomed five tiny, newborn babies to our country and into our hearts.
Advent is a time to prepare for Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth. The great figures of advent are St. John the Baptist and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Mary is the woman of advent, God’s final preparation for the coming of the Messiah.
St. Luke’s Gospel describes for us that beautiful scene where Mary who is pregnant with the Christ child goes to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. The Gospel recounts how John the Baptist in his mother’s womb leaps for joy when he hears Mary’s greeting. John the Baptist in his mother’s womb cannot see the Christ child, but faith comes through hearing. Just as David in the Old Testament danced before the Ark of the Covenant, so John the Baptist dances for joy in the presence of Mary and the Messiah. John the Baptist echoed the joy of Isaiah who tells us shout for joy, sing joyfully O Israel, the Lord is in your midst.
Today’s Gospel shows us this same John the Baptist thirty years later announcing the coming of the Messiah, telling the people in the desert: “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
The people pleaded with John the Baptist: “Tell us what we need to do?” John the Baptist answered: Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has not. And whoever has food should do likewise.” We prepare for the coming of the Messiah by sharing what we have and who we are with one another. It is a social gospel that challenges us to never be content to have too much while others have too little. The tax collectors and the soldiers ask John the Baptist what they should do. John the Baptist did not order them to leave their jobs, but to work out their own salvation by doing those jobs as they should be done; that the tax collector be a good tax collector; that the soldier be a good soldier.
People need to serve God where they are. It was John’s conviction that there is nowhere we can serve God better than in our daily work, in living out our vocation. John painted a picture of judgment, but it was a judgment which could be met with confidence by those who discharge their duty to their neighbor and who have faithfully done their day’s work.
In Dorothy Day’s biography she describes an incident from her childhood in California. Her neighborhood was rocked by earthquakes that sent people scurrying into their yards where they lived in tents for days. She was amazed how neighbors who never spoke to each other were suddenly sharing their food and water, helping to take care of the children and the elderly. A sense of community and connectedness sprang up that she had never experienced in her life. The rest of Dorothy Day’s life was a long quest to achieve that same sense of community and connectedness. It led her into the Communist Party and eventually after having one child out of wedlock and losing another to abortion, Dorothy Day found her way into the Catholic Church and spent the rest of her life caring for the homeless and mentally ill in the Bowery of New York.
Today we are confronted by the tragedy of the slaughter of innocents and at the same time we listen to John the Baptist’s clarion call to be what God has created us to be. So often the real meaning of Christmas is buried in consumerism and superficial sentimentality. We must break through all of that to rediscover our God who has become a little child to teach us how to love.
Years ago when I was a young priest in Washington, on a Saturday afternoon, I was waiting to celebrate a wedding at St. Matthew’s Cathedral. My weddings were always notoriously late and that Saturday was no exception. Finally the bride appeared at the door of the sacristy. She looked lovely in her white gown and veil but I could see that she had been crying. She said, “Padre, there will be no wedding today because my fiancée is in Buffalo New York and there is 6 feet of snow. Please go to the church and tell the people there will be no wedding but that they should proceed directly to the reception.” I went to the church, mounted the pulpit and made the announcement. When I said: “There will be no wedding here today,” there was an audible gasp from the congregation. But then I told them there would be a reception and they should proceed directly to the restaurant, and they all went off very happy.
That evening as I made my meditation, I reflected on that strange wedding and it occurred to me that it was like a parable of what Christmas has become. We have the lights, the food, the music, and the presents, but the bridegroom is in Buffalo. The Church gives us this season of Advent so that we might rescue the bridegroom and bring him back to the party.
The geography of Advent begins in the desert with John the Baptist preaching the Gospel of repentance, calling on the people to change their lives, to be converted and accept the good news of the Gospel. In the Scriptures the desert is a place of testing, and a place of encountering God. The reports about the massacre in Newtown test all of us. But in these days before Christmas we must make time and space for God, to discover God’s presence among us and the reason for our existence. Advent is an invitation to a way of life, the life of discipleship, of being part of Jesus’ family, his community, the Church. For us the desert is not so much a place, as a time of silence and reflection that allows us to penetrate the mystery of Christ’s birth.
In the first Advent Mary is pregnant, and joyfully carries the Christ child in her womb. She is, as Pope John Paul II says, “a living tabernacle carrying our Eucharistic Lord. Today for the first time here at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross we will impart a special blessing that has been composed to bless a child in the womb. The pregnant mothers in our midst are a sign to us of the joyful expectation of the coming of Christ. And just as we bless these children asking for God’s loving protection on them and their mother, we look forward to the day when through the waters of baptism they will become members of Christ’s family, the Church.
The joy and enthusiasm of our country in 1963 over the birth of five tiny babies and the country’s pain and frustration over the loss of 20 innocent first graders are both a testimony that every child is precious. Our prayer for these yet to be born is that they will live in a world that will be safer for children, a world where they will be nurtured, protected and loved.