People want answers. When a young man walked into a first grade class at Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, only to shoot every single child in cold blood, people want to know why. Of course, the gunman took other lives outside of that classroom; but the elimination of a whole first grade class impresses a heartrending image in our minds. One that is most difficult to fathom.
When parents hear about these tragedies their thoughts immediately shift to their own children. Just the thought alone that our children could have suffered the same fate as the poor first-graders whose lives ended so abruptly is enough to make tears flow. But for the parents, colleagues and friends of those victims in Newtown, they have to process the reality of it all.
At Sandy Hook elementary school, evil clashed with innocence in the most unimaginable fashion. Again, when death pounds on our door so abruptly and so early in the lives its victims, people look beyond the grave for answers and ask why. Even when religion has been marginalized in a person’s life or in the life of a community, faith in the unseen world takes on a great deal of significance under these circumstances.
When our Lord walked the earth, people were asking the same question: why do the innocent suffer at the hands of evil? Jesus reminded his audience that the eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them were no more guilty than other Jews who lived in Jerusalem in his day. Yet, God allowed it. Jesus was innocent, yet God allowed his cruxifiction.
Natural disasters and man-made acts of evil fall on the guilty and innocent alike. When St. Paul first converted, our Lord showed this new Apostle all that he would have to suffer. And indeed, he suffered terribly. He recounted just a few of his hardships in his second letter to the Corinthians:
“Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure.” (II Corinthians 11:24-27)
In the Catholic tradition the Church honors martyrs who fell victim to the injustices of evil men. For instance, the Saints taught that underneath the appearance of tragedy there was something else to consider, something else behold. Keep in mind that the distinct class of Catholic martyrs is composed of men, women and children alike. And the circumstances that accompanied their martyrdom were every bit as horrific as Sandy Hook’s mass murder. In fact, some were killed in barbaric fashion and tortured over a long period of time.
Still, underneath the horror, and integral to the Catholic Faith itself, lies the Mystery of the Cross. It gives life even when all else seems to be lost and even dead. It is the greatest of paradoxes but it is also the source of our hope as Christians. The Cross is a stumbling block to the world but not for followers of Christ. For us, "senseless" suffering and an untimely death is invested with meaning because God permits it for a greater good.
In fact, the narrative of the Cross can be summed up with the following words: Evil, death, and sadness may be a part of the story of life but it is far from being the end of the story. With God, there really are happy endings. Loved ones separated by death really do reunite beyond in a better life. And even more important, it is only through the painful reality of death that the purpose of our existence can be fulfilled. Eternal happiness is there for the taking, but it can only be had after having gone through the passage of death.
To be sure, an untimely death, especially one as heart-wrenching as the fatalities in Newtown, Connecticut, provokes all of the human emotions of shock, disbelief and sadness among the friends of God. It invariably triggers a series of “why” questions. But one thing human tragedy cannot bring about is despair; that is, to despair of God’s goodness and wisdom. To repeat, death is not a stumbling block for Christians; even in its most dramatic and disturbing form. We have been trained, if you will, as followers of Christ even amid our grief, to acknowledge that there is glory beyond tragedy. This belief may not mitigate the unimaginable pain but it does put it in context.
On December 14, 2012 many young and beautiful souls were hugged by God in that Sandy Hook kindergarten classrlolom only to be taken to heaven in His arms. This blissful image juxtaposed to the tragic images that invade our minds is part of that narrative of the Cross. It is the narrative that underlies the Newtown tragedy. May it be a source of hope and strength for those who mourn the loss of those who died at Sandy Hook elementary school.