This week, Newtown, Connecticut lost 20 of the most precious things on earth. While the violent death of an adult is shocking and tragic, there is something so much more bewildering, so much more poignant in the deaths of those children. I almost can’t even think about it, let alone write about it.
In every culture in the northern hemisphere, mid-winter, the winter solstice, Yule, Christmas, Hannukah, all of them, it’s all about hope. From pagan times to the present, we hit that longest night, that dark night of the soul when despair and fear in the darkness threaten to overwhelm us. We long for the return of the light and reach for anything we can hang onto to remind ourselves that dawn is coming, spring is coming, there is reason to hope.
And it is no accident that, in most of these traditions, that hope comes in the form of a child. The baby new year, the holy infant. See, the light is fragile when it begins to return. At the winter solstice we have to take it on faith that the days are getting longer. We won’t be able to see it for ourselves until well into January, maybe even the beginning of February. And that faith makes all the difference. It is what gets us through that longest night. Faith that no matter how long it seems it will never be longer than that, and no matter how afraid we are there will always be a dawn, a spring. Faith is the only thing we have to hang onto when hope is newborn and fragile.
Picture it with me. The longest darkest night and there is a turmoil of pain and transition. At the moment when it seems that it will never end, a final push of faith brings something new into the world. And it is tiny. Tiny like a flame that lingers when it should have died away. Tiny like a baby being swaddled for the first time. Tiny like the first stirring of hope. And it is fragile. It must be fiercely defended, wildly cherished, held in a gentle hand until it can be on its own. We don’t even know its name or what it might portend. We only know that it is the most precious, most holy thing we can imagine and it has been entrusted to us to guard.
At this time of year we surround ourselves with as many of the symbols of hope as we can. We light lights, and bake goodies, and give gifts of love to those who are most precious to us. And, if we are very lucky indeed, we have children near us. Children who are filled with wonder at the magic of lights in the darkness. Children who are the most potent symbol of our love, our faith. Children, the walking embodiment of our hope. We take these dark days and fill them with light for the children.
How then should we even begin to encompass the loss of those 20 embodiments of hope? It is too much. Every time it even crosses my mind, I shy away, distract myself with one of the thousand things I have to do in this bustling season. When I can bring myself to look out of the corner of my eye at the edges of what happened in Newtown, I am shattered. Even at this moment, I am sitting at my desk with my fingers typing, and I am weeping. How much more are they weeping in Newtown? And what, oh, what on Earth will those mothers and fathers hang onto to give them hope in this most awful of long dark nights? If I could knit up those broken hearts, I would work my fingers bloody to make something of light and faith for those people, or even for myself.
I have faith that there will be a dawn. I have hope that there will be a spring. I believe with all my heart that the universe is a place filled with light and love. But there is little of ease in me this day, and I know this long dark night will be longer and darker than most. Still, I will hug my own child and fiercely guard the hope that was entrusted to me. I’ll pray for peace for those in turmoil. I’ll pray for comfort for those in pain. I’ll sing a song of thanks for all my blessings and share them as best I can. And I will sing a song of mourning along with those who loved those children in Newtown, Connecticut. And that will be the sound of a heart breaking.