There was a vigil Mass for the 3rd Sunday in Advent held at St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut last evening. It was overflowing with people gathered together for the Sacrifice of the Mass and for the anticipation of the coming of Christ at Christmas. Three candles were burning in the Advent wreath, including the rose-colored candle for Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin and means “rejoice!”, but the parishioners of St. Rose of Lima weren’t thinking of rejoicing. They were thinking of the events of the day before. They were thinking of their friends, relatives, and even their own children who they had lost in the horrific act of violence that occurred Friday. Now, I would love to skip over that and go with the homily I had planned before Friday – maybe pray a little for it in the petitions and get back to rejoicing. But we can’t. Monsignor Doyle, the Diocesan Administrator of the Diocese of Bridgeport, CT wrote to St. Rose Parish, “On this Gaudete Sunday, we realize how quickly our joy can be turned to sorrow, and how our faith can be challenged.” Isn’t that the truth.
How do we talk about rejoicing as we recall these events? We have to remember that joy isn’t in the feelings of this season. It isn’t in the warm feeling you have before Christmas sipping hot chocolate before a roaring fire. That isn’t joy. The joy that we celebrate is rooted in the Coming of Christ. Let me show you what I mean.
As the events are unfolding through countless news media outlets, we are getting chilling reports of what happened. There are horrible reports of the medical examiners on the scene. I was even reading the content of the dispatch tapes of the officers who responded, and they slowly unfold the horror of the situation. First confusion at broken glass, then reports of gunfire and the school on lockdown. One of the last reports I read came from a medic who said, “Require backup and ambulances. They said to call for everything.” These are the stories of terror of the people who saw this happen. But it’s to those people that Emmanuel comes.
I was also reading some of the stories of heroism from Friday. One example was Vicki Soto, a first grade teacher only a few months younger than I am. She heard the gunshots and hurriedly hid her first graders in cabinets and closets. She then placed herself between the gunman and the students, sacrificing her life to protect them. Another example was Dawn Hochsprung, the principle of Sandy Hook Elementary, who made sure teachers and their students were huddled in safety before going out to the hallway to confront the gunman. The details are still developing, and we may never know what happened, but the simple truth is that these women and teachers like them were heroes. And it’s to those people that Emmanuel comes.
In the midst of all of this, I was reading about the shooter, Adam Lanza. He was described as being very intelligent and on the honor roll, and generally a happy person. But at the same time, he was remote and reportedly suffered from an acute personality disorder. All that and his horrific actions aside, imagine the suffering and hatred in his heart that would have driven him to do something like this. He is described by some people as a monster, and many people around our country are glad that he is gone, but nevertheless, he was a person, a son. His parents’ feeling of loss is as real as any of the victims. But it’s to people like Adam and his parents, and to those who feel isolated and detached – it’s to those people that Emmanuel comes.
Now I can’t imagine what I would do if this had happened at our school, PSR, or parish. Obviously I don’t have children of my own, but as a spiritual father, that hurt is still real. Still, I can’t imagine what the parents must be going through. These were parents who’s child was going to be the angel in the Christmas play coming up, who’s child just scored their first goal in soccer, who’s child needed to be picked up from Cub Scouts later Friday afternoon. It’s to those who mourn, who feel that emptiness inside, that Emmanuel comes.
The joy of Gaudete Sunday isn’t artificial. It’s not about being a happy and plucky person like someone out of a Christmas movie. God doesn’t choose to come to us just when things are perfect. The joy of Gaudete Sunday is a joy in this fact: despite the fear, the violence, the hatred, and the sinfulness of our world, God came to save us anyway. And not only that, but his life was such that he chose to enter into that fear, hatred, and violence. He was born into it, having to avoid the slaughter of the Holy Innocents by Herod and flee to Egypt. He lived in it, a period of political upheaval and oppression by the Roman Empire. He died in it, dying the most violent death possible at his time. And ultimately, he conquered it – by rising from the dead and ascending to the Father. That’s why he came. He is Emmanuel, God with us – with us in the good times like Christmas plays and meals with the family, and with us in the bad times such as the violent loss of a child. He is God with us, and brothers and sisters, that is something we can rejoice in.