Yesterday the O-antiphons of Advent began.
But mine started early, driving home last Friday on a snowy freeway, catching the afternoon news after a day of meetings.
Oh God, no. Oh God, not again. Oh God, not children.
So many words have been spilled since Friday, and yet I keep struggling to voice how deeply this news wounds. As a mother, of course. But deeper, as a person of faith who tries to make sense of God’s ways, who wonders how we can respond in turn.
It was the familiarity of Sandy Hook that shook me up. The day before the shooting, a school was bombed in Syria, killing sixteen, half of whom were women and children. But that tragedy was a mere blip on the evening news, the daily digest of the continued slaughter of the innocents. My husband mentioned it over dinner and I shook my head. “I can’t handle Syria anymore. Too much. I can’t handle it.”
But now, school heaped upon school, bodies heaped upon bodies, babies heaped upon babies, I keep thinking of Sandy Hook and I keep thinking of Syria. As I finish my Christmas shopping, as I wrap presents, as I write cards. Everything seems surreal in the sight of parents sobbing over tiny coffins. Every year I wrestle with the consumerism of the holiday, feeling lonelier and lonelier as I whisper this is not what Christmas means. But this year, the contrast feels starker than ever.
. . .
Today was the first day I dropped my boy off at school since last Friday. As I rounded the car to open his door and unbuckle his car seat, I suddenly felt my heart leap into my throat. How was I going to leave him here? His safe little preschool, in the small town clap-board church, loomed large in a darker world where everything seems dangerous now.
I halted, hand on the handle, wanting to dash back around to the driver’s side, slam the door shut and squeal out of the snowy parking lot. Flee back home where everything felt safe.
But I didn’t. I couldn’t.
So I breathed in cold, crisp December air. I opened the door, bent down and smiled. “Let’s go, my love! Time for school!” False cheer in my voice, fake grin on my face.
I pulled his hood up over his small head, tucked his mittens into his coat sleeves, trying not to cry as I thought about parents doing the same routine on last Friday’s morning drop-off.
“Do you know how much I love you?” I asked as he smiled up at me. “I do,” his quiet response.
“And do you remember who’s always with you, in your heart, so you don’t have to be sad or afraid?” “Jesus,” he whispered.
“That’s right. God is always with you.” I hugged him extra tight.
Why did I need to remind him today? Did I need some small sense of protection, some meager assurance that if a murderer burst through the doors of his preschool, he might remember love in the midst of fear? So sick, the ways our minds spin right now, scared and wounded in the face of unimaginable suffering.
But still I walked him across the icy parking lot, swung wide the door and swept him inside. His lovely teacher greeted him with a warm smile as she welcomed him downstairs. And against every fiber in my being, I turned and pushed the door open wide to leave.
I started to tear up as I left the parking lot, memories rushing back of the first day I left him there, the first time I left him with a sitter to go to work, the first time I realized he was no longer snuggled up safe inside me.
How can I do it, over and over again, I wondered as I drove away. How do I keep pushing my babies out into the world?
And the answer came clear and quiet: I have to do it the same way I first birthed them.
Through my own inner strength. Surrounded by the support of others. Leaning into the grace of God.
This is the only way I know how to parent. Maybe it’s the only way I know how to live in this world. It’s surely the only way I know how to celebrate Emmanuel this year.
Remembering that Christmas is not something I do, but something that was done by God, for all of us.
Remembering that in so many corners of the world Advent is always held in this tension: a small light flicking amid death and violence and fear.
Remembering that the Nativity story starts with one scared mother, birthing her baby into a painful world, bearing light into utter darkness.
O come, O come, Emmanuel.