This past Saturday, the bells of Christ Church Greenwich tolled with church bells across Connecticut to mark the one-year anniversary of the heinous shooting of twenty schoolchildren and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown on December 14, 2012.
It was my duty to preach at the 11:00 service on Sunday, December 16, 2012. That happened to be the Sunday when the St Cecilia Choir of Girls were singing Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols as part of the liturgy, an annual tradition in the parish. The sermon I wrote was intended to be heard in conjunction with some of those carols, and I have included the most salient texts at the bottom of this post.
Re-reading this sermon today, there is much that I would change and much that I would add. In particular, I wish that I had said something about the great Advent message of judgment. Few events manifest our need for the righteous judgment of God more plainly and bitterly than the senseless murder of schoolchildren. Advent is the season that reminds us—that promises us—that the same God who came as a baby in Bethlehem will come again to judge the living and the dead; that he will bring to completion his triumph wrought on the Cross over Sin and Death; that he will at last drive out everything in our world and everything in ourselves that stands contrary to his good and gracious will.
All these things, I wish I had said. But in remembrance of that terrible day, and with prayers for all who died, all who mourn, and all who still bear physical and emotional wounds, I offer this sermon unedited, as it was delivered:
A Sermon Preached on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012
by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich
Texts: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18; A Ceremony of Carols (selected texts below)
May I speak in the name of the Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Words fail us at times like these. As we gather this morning, this Third Sunday of Advent, there are no words that can do justice to the sorrow, and pain, and confusion, and anger in so many hearts today.
My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the suffering of the people of Newtown. My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the children of that community, both those whose young lives were cut short on Friday, and those who now must carry emotional and psychological wounds for as long as they live. My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the families so cruelly robbed of their little ones, and the children and family members deprived of six brave educators. My soul is heavy, my heart breaks, when I think of the perpetrator of this hateful crime, and of his murdered mother. In all of this my soul is heavy, my heart breaks, my words fail. In the days and weeks to come, we will try to make sense of the senseless, to fathom the unfathomable. I suspect that whatever answers we find will lead only to more fearful questions, and that much we may wish to know will remain forever unexplained.
And yet now, in our grief and perplexity, in this time when our words fail, we gather for worship. We gather to hear and experience the annual singing of the Ceremony of Carols. In this time when our words fail, we gather to hear some of our own children sing ancient words in praise of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem.
What use is our singing this day? What do we find as we listen to these old carols? We do not find answers. We do not hear explanations. Rather, in this service today, we meet the One who sits in silence with us when our words fail. In the carols of this service today, we meet the One who came to share the vulnerability and fragility of our lives. In our service today, we meet the silent Word of God; the wordless Lord of heaven and earth, weeping in a stable, weeping with and for us. In these songs today, we do not find answers. Instead, we are found by the God who sits with us in the dust of our sorrow, and anger, and broken-hearted bewilderment. We are embraced by the God who, by the might of his own vulnerability, by the wealth of his own poverty, by the strength of his great helplessness, confronts and conquers the evil of this world, and the evil in our hearts.
This morning as we weep for the suffering children of Newtown, we hear the weeping of God who was born a helpless child in Bethlehem, who suffered for us on the Cross of Calvary, and who suffers with us still. This day as we sit in fear and weakness and silent sorrow, we hear the words of promise spoken by the prophet, the words fulfilled in Jesus: “Jerusalem, fear thou not. Zion, let not thine hands be slack. The Lord thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing.” This rejoicing, this salvation, does not come in spite of our sorrow, but in the midst of it. This promise of exaltation, this hope of renewed strength, does not ask us to lift up our eyes and strain for a glimpse of a distant God in heaven. It calls us, instead, to lower them in sorrow, to cast them down under the weight of our grief, and to find God here, in the depths of our pain, in the midst of our suffering, in the lowliness of our human flesh, saving us by the power of his powerlessness.
That is our hope. That is the beginning of our consolation. That is the unending promise of this holy season of Advent, of the coming of Emmanuel, “God-with-us.” And so on this Third Sunday of Advent, we look more eagerly than ever for the final fulfillment of that promise. We wait. We sit in the place where our words fail. We weep. And we hear the God of heaven and earth weeping with us.
Selection of texts from Benjamin Britten’s Ceremony of Carols:
There is No Rose
There is no rose of such vertu as is the rose that bare Jesu. Alleluia, Alleluia.
For in this rose conteinèd was Heaven and earth in litel space. Res Miranda, Res Miranda.
By that rose we may well see there be one God in persons three, Pares forma, Pares forma.
The aungels sungen the shepherds to: Gloria in excelsis Deo. Gaudeamus, Gaudeamus.
Leave we all this werldly mirth, and follow we this joyful birth. Transeamus, Transeamus.
That Yongë Child
That yongë child when it gan weep,
With song she lulled him asleep
Her song is hoarse and nought thereto:
And leaveth the first, then doth he wrong.
The nightingale sang also:
Whoso attendeth to her song
That was so sweet a melody
It passéd alle minstrely.
This Little Babe
This little Babe so few days old is come to rifle Satan’s fold.
All hell doth at his presence quake, though he himself for cold do shake:
For in this weak unarmèd wise the gates of hell he will surprise.
With tears he fights and wins the field, His naked breast stands for a shield;
His battering shot are babish cries, His arrows looks of weeping eyes;
His martial ensigns Cold and Need, and feeble Flesh his warrior’s steed.
His camp is pitchèd in a stall, His bulwark but a broken wall;
The crib his trench, haystalks his stakes, of shepherds he his muster makes;
And thus, as sure his foe to wound, the angels’ trumps alarum sound.
My soul, with Christ join thou in fight, stick to the tents that he hath pight;
Within his crib is surest ward, this little Babe will be thy guard;
If thou wilt foil thy foes with joy, then flit not from this heavenly boy.
In Freezing Winter Night
Behold, a silly tender babe in freezing winter night,
In homely manger trembling lies; alas, a piteous sight!
The inns are full, no man will yield this little pilgrim bed.
But forced is he with silly beast, in crib to shroud his head.
This stable is a Prince’s court, this crib his chair of State;
The beast are parcel of his pomp, this wooden dish his plate.
The persons in that poor attire his royal liveries wear;
With joy approach O Christian wight, do homage to thy King;
The Prince himself is come from Heav’n; this pomp is prized there.
And highly praise his humble pomp, wich he from Heav’n doth bring.