18 December 2012

Sunday homily after the Sandy Hook tragedy, from an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales

Homily for December 16, 2012
Monthly "Salesian Mass" at Visitation (larger mass in the auditorium that is frequently attended by alumni)
Fr. Kevin Nadolski, OSFS

A great social prophet once said that our faith is meant to help us make sense out of the nonsense of our lives. We live amid so much nonsense: our important relationships fail, our loved ones struggle with illness or die, our dreams are dashed by the chill of life’s realities. And, this morning just 73 hours from Friday’s shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, we are struggling to make sense out of the nonsense of the evil, senseless, horrific pain that 27 families and one community are experiencing as the whole world empathizes at the unnecessary loss of innocent life. If our faith is to help us make sense out of that nonsense, then our faith has a lot of heavy lifting to do today. 

We come to church amid a school community—this Visitation faith community—where we define ourselves by Salesian gentleness, a virtue treasured by St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane de Chantal, our founders.  Such violence is not only foreign to us; it is repulsive and has the power to sicken us if we think of it too much or watch too much media coverage of the carnage. 

Yet, in this church we hear some powerful words that are hard to hear, no less put into action in the aftermath of the shooting in Connecticut or in the wake of the challenges we experience in our lives: “Shout for joy; sing joyfully; be glad and exult with all your heart,” says Zephaniah. And Paul is equally ecstatic: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again, rejoice!”

I don’t think many people in our nation feel quite like rejoicing or shouting for joy. And, neither did Zephaniah and Paul. Zephaniah was trying to get his Jewish people to stop worshipping false gods in the Temple, a huge problem, and Paul was in prison and the Phillipians were being persecuted, experiencing dissension, and worried about Paul. Nobody was happy, everyone had heavy hearts, but here they were being exhorted to rejoice. And, so are we on this Third Sunday of Advent. Still, a hard task. 

The question that Zephaniah and Paul were asking themselves was not the “why” question, as in “Why is this happening to us?”  “Why did God let this happen to me?”  Rather, they are asking themselves the “How” question:  “How do I move forward in faith amid such pain, grief, anger, rage, and yes, evil?”

They exhort their followers, in faith, to dig deep, deep down within themselves to find a place of joy, a cause of goodness in themselves, and within their lives. From prison Paul writes “Rejoice!” Not from a beautiful beach vista. Not some warm, fuzzy experience of community. No, in the lonely, isolated pain of a prison cell. But, his words go on: “In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.”  Maybe this is the way we are to pray for our neighbors in Newtown, Connecticut. In petition for them, but with thanksgiving for the blessings of our lives. As we continue our prayers, what thanksgivings will we add to them?  What are we most thankful for as we pray for those who live in pain?  Might this move us, like Paul and Zephaniah, from pain to some faith-filled joy?

Joy is different from happiness, fun, and frivolity. It is more like an anchor; it keeps us in the presence of God.  An anchor that gives us stability to endure the challenges of life. It is also an anchor that allows to sit still and not rush from the delights of life. 

It is joy that can have a family laugh and reminisce with great stories even at the funeral of a loved one.  It allows us to celebrate with gusto and dance at a wedding when we know the honeymoon can’t last forever.  To move on when even the marriage doesn’t last. It lets a family care for a sick child afraid of the possibilities but in love with smiles whenever they come. Or to quote Robbie Parker, father of six-year-old Emilie who was murdered on Friday: “As we move on from what happened here, what happened to so many people, let us not let it turn into something that defines us.” He went on to offer his prayers and condolences to the family of the man who executed his little girl.

Dorothy Day said it well:  “Joy and sorrow, life and death, always so close together.” Perhaps they are so close together because they only make sense when we are anchored in the presence of God. 

It is living in the presence of God where joy is found. Marjory Zoet Bankson, president of Faith At Work, an ecumenical resource center that develops small faith groups in the churches, says it best in her consideration about the joy among the poor.  She quotes Michael Curry, an Episcopal priest who works in the inner city of Baltimore, He says that the biblical vision of peace and justice provides the basis for true joy out of gratitude. 

‘Why didn’t the slaves go crazy?’ Curry asks, ‘They had no doctors, no therapists or social workers.  Even families were separated and sold. I believe it was their singing. The church spirituals took away their shame, wiped away their tears and made them part of God’s family.’ Without the larger framework of God’s purpose and promise, joy would have been absurd.” 

This larger framework of God’s purpose and promise is living—and singing—in God’s presence, even when there is little to sing about. The slaves certainly knew this! (The Living Pulpit: Joy, October/Decemeber 1996).

Joy doesn’t occur when we get what we want.  In fact, it gives us stability when we are not getting what we want. And it lets us delight in those times when we do, in fact, get what we want—and need.

Our Advent icon, Mary, the Mother of God, definitely was a joyful woman. Yet, she did not want to be the mother of God. In fact, I am willing to bet that she didn’t want the job at all. But, her anchoring joy allowed her to be stable enough to cherish the beauty of raising Jesus and allowed her to endure and survive the pain
of watching him die.

And, our anchoring joy will allow us to live Jesus, during these days of preparing for Christmas with conflicted, heavy hearts and whether we feel like singing or not. 

I close with the words that conclude our first reading, but for some reason, the church left them out. The second part of the verse 18 is very, very important for us today as we mourn as a nation or at anytime we try to make sense out of the nonsense of our lives: The prophet writes: “I will remove disaster from among you, so that no one may recount your disgrace.” Yes, God will remove disaster from among us, so that we may live in true grace. This is cause for rejoicing, and this is the promise of God who comes through the life of the Holy Child and the eternal lives of 20 children and their teachers. To counter violence, we can’t wait to hear the great Christmas message that greeted a little child and is needed now more than ever: “Peace on earth!”

May this peace be with you!

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