Tonight, I went over to a nearby church’s brief prayer service for the victims of the school shooting in Newtown. We sang “O God our Help in Ages Past” which is a hymn that I love. Yet, when we got to the line, “A thousand ages in Thy sight are like an evening gone” my mind and heart clinched up a bit. I wondered if a thousand ages are so fleeting, then what matter are 5 years or 10 years? For a moment, God’s seeming indifference to the life and death of kindergarten children was overwhelming in its utter silence.
We sang hymns and said prayers but I just heard great silence.
I listen and I hear quiet. I hear pain. I hear loss. I hear anguish. I hear dreams gone dim and hearts made still. This is a time when words ring false—when songs grate—when bells ring hollow. Today I hear great silence. A silence in which we listen for the voice of God, the whisper of the comforter.
The question deafens in the silence though. Why? What kind of God allows this? Our answers and questions are drops in a pool, in the tide of that same question asked over and over in myriad ways across the centuries. The distance between life and death seems enormous and yet they are woven together in these instants when we are made numb by the news.
We, and all who have come before, and all who come after face life’s fearful symmetry. Life’s fearful symmetry – all are born in joy and all go down to the grave. Often, in the face of loss, I say empty things and am speechless. And we are all often speechless in those times.
Yet God is not speechless. God speaks through and in tears. God speaks to us constantly waiting until we hear him. When our hearts ache, when our eyes dry up, when we don’t know if we have another day left in us…there is Christ, there is God, there is humanity.
Where is God, we ask ourselves, to let this happen – to let loss come upon the innocent? God is here. God is now and with us and in us. God was on the cross and is the victim on the altar and is in the hearts of those who mourn.
We belong to a faith that marks the full measure of shed innocent blood. The answer we have is proclaimed loudest in the starkness of the cross. In its fearful symmetry we find some measure of God’s answer – for in that moment of Christ’s seeming stillness awakened unending life. There are no easy answers to life’s hard questions – and the silent cross is perhaps the hardest and most unnerving of answers to the flood of questions we would pour upon God.
From creche to cross, this is the symmetry of Emmanuel – God with Us.
That same God who is in us knows our sufferings and shares in them when we are broken; he is there to hold us together in sorrow and triumph. When we suffer and when we help others through their grief, we are taking on the mantle of Christ whose wounds are our healing.
The final judgment is presented as an instant, a moment in time that shatters time. “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” Death too comes at an unexpected hour. It catches us unaware – especially when it takes the young.
It calls us up short in what seems an everlasting instant. But just as death comes at an unexpected hour, so too will joy. So too will new life. So too will resurrection for us and for those we love.
We know this great hope and yet we also know anguish and pain. For those who love much will grieve much. It is in the pain of loss that we know we have loved deeply that we have been loved in the way God calls us to love. It is in our knowledge of loss that love – and love’s often painful price – is all too often revealed. This is the painful symmetry of love and loss.
The Old Testament promises that mountains and fields shall break forth into song and the trees of the field will clap their hands together for they are the scene of salvation.
One day we shall hear those songs of joy. We will hear the clapping of the trees. We will sing out, “Where, O death, is thy victory? Where, O death, is thy sting?” Trumpets will sound, cymbals will ring, bells will peal, shouts of joy will echo through the hills and halls of Heaven, and the Angels will thunder out “Alleluia!”
And over all that joyous noise, through all that loud celebration, we will hear the voice of those we love whispering, “You are home. I am with you.” This is God’s joyful symmetry. Even as we go down to the grave, we make our cry – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Today I hear silence though. And I pray for the confidence that the silence will one day lift and we will hear, feel, taste, and see the joy of the Lord with us. I am listening, in the silence, for the sound of God mourning with us.