Advent, suffering and the promise of joy
Scripture is a love story, the story of God’s love for humanity. But it’s a real story filled with real people. It’s not a fairytale. In Scripture, as in the real world, evil things happen to innocent persons. The wicked seem to thrive. Cruelty and suffering are common.
The Psalmist cries out to heaven again and again for justice; Job is crushed by misfortune; Herod murders blameless infants; Jesus is nailed to a cross. God is good, but we human beings are free, and being free, we help fashion the nature of our world with the choices we make.
This is why evil is frightening, but it’s not incomprehensible. We know it from intimate experience. What we never quite expect is for our private sins, multiplied and fermented by millions of lives with the same or similar “little” sins, to somehow feed the kind of evil that walks into a Connecticut school and guns down 26 innocent lives, 20 of them children.
Thirteen years ago, as archbishop of Denver, I helped bury some of the victims of the Columbine High School massacre. Nothing is more helpless or heart-breaking than to sit with parents who kissed their children goodbye in the morning and will never see them alive again in this world. The pain of loss is excruciating. Words of comfort all sound empty.
The victims in the Sandy Hook massacre were even younger and more numerous than those at Columbine, and if such intense sorrow could be measured, the suffering of the Connecticut family members left behind might easily be worse.
With such young lives cut so short, every parental memory of an absent child will be precious — compounded by a hunger for more time and more memories that will never happen. This is why we need to keep the grieving families so urgently in our hearts and prayers.
People will ask, “How could a loving God allow such wickedness?” Every life lost in Connecticut was unique, precious and irreplaceable. But the evil was routine; every human generation is rich with it. Why does God allow war? Why does God allow hunger? Why does God allow the kind of poverty that strips away the dignity of millions of people in countries around the world?
All of these questions sound reasonable, and yet they’re all evasions. We might as well ask, “Why does God allow us to be free?” We have the gift of being loved by a Creator who seeks our love in return; and being loved, we will never be coerced by the One who loves us. God gives us the dignity of freedom – freedom to choose between right and wrong, a path of life or a path of death.
We are not the inevitable products of history or economics or any other determinist equation. We’re free, and therefore we’re responsible for both the beauty and the suffering we help make. Why does God allow wickedness? He allows it because we – or others just like us – choose it. The only effective antidote to the wickedness around us is to live differently from this moment forward. We make the future beginning now.
In these final days of Advent, the Church urges us to lift up our hearts and prepare to rejoice. There’s nothing remotely naïve in this call to joy; the Church knows the harshness of the world far too well for empty pieties. The evil in the world is bitter and brutal, but it’s not new. Nor, in the light of human history, is it a surprise. Yet in the Old Testament, the Song of Songs tells us that “love is strong as death,” and in God’s redeeming plan, love is stronger than death. The surprise is the persistence of God’s fidelity and mercy. The surprise is that, despite our sins, we still long to be the people God intended us to be.
Christmas is the birthday of Jesus Christ, our Emmanuel, a name that means “God with us.” The surprise is that God sends his own Son into a dark world to bring us light and hope. So it has been with every generation since Bethlehem. So it remains — even now.