It was a painful irony – some might call it a cruel irony – one noted to my congregation: On a Sunday so close to Christmas, when the Catholic Church admonishes her children in the words of the opening antiphon Gaudete (Rejoice!), we found ourselves just a few short days past the horrific and inexplicable violence which occurred in Newtown, Connecticut.
How can we speak of joy with the knowledge that the lovingly wrapped gifts for those 20 children, all of them six or seven years of age, would remain unopened under the brightly decorated trees in their families’ homes?
For some, this may have been the final brutal weight which saps one’s soul of any joy – or hope. Many are in despair in the face of such insane evil.
How do we make sense of all this?
If by “sense” we mean how do we figure it all out? How do we examine the parts of the thing? How do we understand the whys and wherefores, the preconditions, the early warning signs, and all the other factors that went into what happened in that school? If that is what we think we are looking for, then, no – there is no sense, no meaning, even if we had the plausible explanation that good people so desperately want. Evil is never rational; it is disordered, unreasonable and, ultimately, unreal. It is fundamentally parasitic on the Good.
We believe in a Creation that is fundamentally and thoroughly good because it was created by a loving and good Creator for us to render it back to him with gratitude and in glory. Evil was not part of His plan; it is a parasite, without substantive existence, on His Creation. The great English mystic Julian of Norwich was getting at this when she said, “I did not see sin, for I believe that it has no kind of substance, no share in being, nor can it be recognized except by the pains which it causes.”
When we ask our bewildered why? – we are not looking for data points. Even less should we offer glib responses in the face of this shattering loss – this modern-day slaughter of the innocents. We are, instead, seeking the meaning in the face of thismysterium iniquitatis. The meaning we seek is not so much the significance of evil as the meaning, the value and the dignity of those young lives, of our lives – indeed of life itself.
And it is precisely here that the words of the Gaudete, have their effect – if we take the time to ponder what it means.
The ultimate response to the evil made manifest at Newtown, or at the shopping mall in Portland, or at Columbine, or in the abortuaries, or in the concentration camps, or anywhere that evil holds sway over humanity at any time and in any place whether exposed or hidden going all the way back to the beginning of time – is the love made manifest precisely in the midst of so broken and dented a world where such things are conceivable.
Certainly this takes us to the core of what Christmas means: God’s concrete gift from heaven for the redemption of humanity from the effects of sin in the person of his Son. It is as if that transcendent meaning has permeated the whole of the season’s recollection. Even once the magi from the East arrive (reminding us of the universality of the Gift) they themselves bring sumptuous gifts to the Infant-King. And so the popular Christmas narrative continues, to the point that the pictorial aspect of the narrative can overwhelm at times the meaning
The delicate thing about a gift – a real gift – is that is can only be given in freedom. Indeed it is impossible without freedom. A true gift cannot be psychologically manipulated or physically coerced out of anyone and remain a gift. What is at work here at some level is love, but it is always fragile in that the gift must be given freely and received freely. Here is where one may find the seed of an entire civilization of love in this kind of gratuitousness which results in a firmer and nobler foundation than the capacity of any politician or army could muster.
Yet, in our brokenness, we can shut ourselves out from this gift. We become something less than human. We can be pulled down into the depths, where instead of the comic book caricature of a flaming lake guarded by a red devil with a pitchfork, we find instead something more like the center of Dante’s Inferno, utter darkness and cold. As the French writer Georges Bernanos observed, “Hell is not to love anymore.”
The manifestation of that incarnate love in Bethlehem subsumes into Himself all the pain and loss, grief and tears of every father and mother who has ever wept for the loss of a child – the tears of all humankind. The act of the Eternal God’s condescension in Jesus Christ is His answer to the mystery of evil with the mystery of infinite love, a love so powerful that it takes an eternity until every trace of evil and suffering and pain and mourning, shall be fully and finally obliterated. In the end He will prevail. “Love never fails” (1 Cor. 13:8).
This is why, even through the tears as you hold your children a little tighter this Christmas, we can hear the call to rejoice at its deepest level of meaning.
This article, which originally appeared on Forbes.com, was adapted from a homily delivered at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish in Grand Rapids, Mich., on Dec. 16.