Wednesday, December 07, 2016

Advent in Newtown

by Henk Hart

"Reading the skies and the times," by Henk Hart
In various places in the gospels Jesus expects us, since we are able to tell from a red morning sky that a cloudy day is coming, to also be able to read the signs of the times. The blog that follows is a shorter version of a piece I wrote following the Newtown massacre at Sandy Hook elementary school in which I tried to read the signs of those times.
The Newtown massacre happened on my 77th birthday. That was in the same time period during which the previous two blogs on Love/love were written. What might this cataclysmic event tell us about Love and love? I am sensitive to sevens as spiritually significant numbers, so I needed no prodding to start wrestling with the darkness and the sorrow of Newton. What emerged was a reading of December 14, 2012 as a story in advent.
In the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament love summarizes all God's hopes for us. Sometimes love is not only an attribute of God but simply is God. To seek God's love in Jesus leads to being filled full with the fullness of God, says Ephesians. But in the history of the Christian church we find a persistent and dominant portrayal of love tempered by, especially, punitive justice. God does ask us to love one another, it is said, but also wants us to be just toward evil. The favoured interpretation of the cross of Jesus as substitutionary atonement brings together God's judgment on evil with God's love. In that tradition believers, too, must deal justly with evil. In line with major theological traditions, we are expected to practice love tempered by justice. This differs, however, from a more Biblical seeking of justice as rooted in love. Instead, in the traditions, we must both love and be just. Love and justice are taken as different but equal.

After some centuries of secularization in our culture, love of God and neighbour were not at the centre of our lives. The West pursued self interested individualism among law abiding citizens and a punitive justice system for those who transgress. The grace and mercy of God, along with God, are absent from the public square. The Christian witness to love proved too weak to survive the erosive powers of secularization. The historic marks of the true church promoted by the Reformation do not include love.

All the more surprising, therefore, is the rather sudden and marked reappearance of compassion as an essential practice in unexpected places. Significant examples are three recent films that in profoundly moving ways tell stories of love as the singular road along which to journey toward redemption. They were rewarded with high honors, as I mentioned in an earlier blog.

These strikingly exceptional as well as powerful films are not the only surprises. Scholar and writer Andrew Solomon very recently published his 10 year study of severely handicapped children, Far From The Tree, and concludes that love motivates and characterizes the bond between parents and such children. His 700 page book (with an additional 250 pages of notes, bibliography, and index) was met with a chorus of enthusiastic reviews in the press and on television. The Toronto Public Library, original owner of just over 40 copies now increased to 110, has a waiting list of 500 eager readers. People seem to hunger for a kind of love affirming those who are other than and different from ourselves.

These special sources from which our culture can learn about redemptive love are not in any technical sense theological. When I keep my heart open, I experience signs of a possible return to compassion everywhere. I specifically interpreted the indescribably horrible massacre at Newtown as scene of love and compassion, courage and hope. The responses of all kinds of people, especially parents of the dead, were very unlike events we have come to know from earlier such tragedies. So Newtown made me wonder whether darkness can be so deep that a deeper darkness cannot be imagined? Is there a darkness so utterly devoid of light that moving deeper into this darkness leads to light, the light at the end of darkness?

The many, many previous mass killings have often been dominated by dark thoughts of justice: judgment, revenge, retaliation, punishment, and condemnation. The Mennonite parents in Columbine stood out when they lived their faith in forgiving. People didn't understand parents could be like that. But responses in Newtown seem different. There too, people struggle to find a word for the depth of darkness, the unfathomable depth of anguish that brought all the world to tears. It reminded me of Rachel weeping for her children who were murdered to keep the Light from coming in. This time the response, even from parents of dead children, was so widely marked by compassion, so lifted up by love, that the darkness seemed to begin to recede; as though more darkness were unimaginable and darkness at its limits turned people irresistibly toward the light. Imagine a conservative American town inviting Muslims to join in a public inter-faith memorial of the dead. Imagine the state's Governor urging the mourners to have compassion.

We could, with reason, be cynical about breaks in the armour of weapon enthusiasts. Do corporations divest themselves of gun stocks because light has reached them or because it makes market sense? But my inclination is to see, all around us, living testimony of the Light that no darkness can hold back. Maybe this season's days devoid of light and malls filled with songs of light helped provide a setting for hearts pierced by Newtown's sorrow to be opened to receive the Life of Light called Love.

This piece is part of the Ground Motive project From Henk's Archives.

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