The Sandy Hook Elementary School Massacre

Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, has asked all of us to join in prayer for the shooting victims – the children, families as well as the entire school community and town – of Newtown, Connecticut.  We all share in the horror of the terror, we grieve with those who grieve, and we are thankful with those who survived.

Mothers weeping over their murdered children. 13th Century Mosaic, Chora Church, Istanbul.

The phenomenon of mass shootings, seemingly on the rise in our country, will bring about further discussion on how to deal with social problems.   There will be calls for more laws, more arrests, more guns, more security, more prison terms – all things that have been tried in recent years and yet the tragedy of mass murders seems to increase.  Maybe instead we will consider investing more in dealing with mental and spiritual health and in helping individuals and families deal with mental and spiritual problems.  For even when some recognize serious problems in an individual – sociopathic, pyschopathic, and evil – there are few places where one can turn for meaningful help.  In a land which values freedoms, what is to happen with those who will use those freedoms to harm themselves and others?

At least some in the mental health professions do recognize that there is a need to admit there exists something which is evil and should be labeled so.  Some admit there is a difference between mental illness and evil.  They would say we must not confuse the two because they require different responses and treatments.

Newtown Connecticut shooting

Our situation is not much different from what was described 2000 years ago in St. Mark’s Gospel.   Jesus arrives in the country of the Gerasenes and,

“there met him out of the tombs a man with an unclean spirit,  who lived among the tombs; and no one could bind him any more, even with a chain;  for he had often been bound with fetters and chains, but the chains he wrenched apart, and the fetters he broke in pieces; and no one had the strength to subdue him.  Night and day among the tombs and on the mountains he was always crying out, and bruising himself with stones.” (Mark 5:2-5)

A man no one knew how to control and who couldn’t be contained by known human methods; even chains and fetters didn’t stop him from his evil destruction.  Forward 2000 years to our time, and even with ‘progress’ in science, mental health and law enforcement, we still lack the know-how of what to do with such people.  Methods we have tried have not eliminated the problem nor prevented new cases from appearing.  How much spiritual, psychological and social energy and resources one person possessed with such a spirit drains from family, friends and an entire community.   Do we have the diagnostics, resources and will to deal with these cases?  Can we afford not to?

President Lincoln’s murder weapon.

We can ask God for the wisdom for us to deal with these spiritual and psychological problems on earth.   Maybe we have to recognize that there are problems that normal human reason cannot resolve – that we are crossing some line into another realm which is resistant to chains and fetters or science and reason.  This doesn’t mean that we have to abandon reason and research to return to some pre-scientific thinking or worldview.  It means only using all the resources at our disposal and not eliminating some ideas (like the notion of evil) just because we find them inconvenient, awkward or antiquated.  Wisdom recognizes that when it comes to human behavior, law is not enough to explain everything.

The letter of Metropolitan Tikhon follows.

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

All of us have been shaken by the news of the tragic death of twenty young children and six adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Connecticut. All of a sudden, the image of Rachel, who was ‘weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’ [Jeremiah 31:15], becomes more than simply a passage from scripture. Rather, it becomes an unfortunate reality in the lives of those affected by the senseless incident and in our own hearts, as we share in their lamentation and sorrow.

None of us can truly understand the personal distress that so many are facing today. Yet every one of us knows the reality of such tragedy and experience it in the depths of our hearts. Our very being is shaken and we feel powerless to do anything. Nevertheless, we make an effort to direct our prayers towards the families of those who have lost their most dear ones, most of whom are innocent and pure children.

Concerning those who have fallen asleep, Saint Paul exhorts us not to “grieve even as others who have no hope” [1 Thessalonians 4:13]. And yet, herein he does not forbid us from grieving. Now is the time for us to weep, but we must weep with the firm hope that comes from our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. “Shed tears, but remain calm; weep modestly, and with fear of God,” writes Saint John Chrysostom. And following this example, each of us must strive to transform our sorrow into prayer.

I therefore call on the clergy and the faithful of the Orthodox Church in America to offer fervent prayers for the souls of those whose lives have been so brutally cut short and for the consolation of all those whose existence has been shattered by this unfathomable event. I also ask that those who are physically able to offer their services to the grieving and the broken-hearted, both in the Newtown community and throughout this land.

It is at times like this that we must put our faith into action and offer our Christian support and love, to make our prayers concrete through action. Many have been affected, and many more will be overcome by grief, despair and isolation. We must ensure that we do all we can to provide a sense of true community to all those in need and to bear their burdens as the Lord asks us to.

Together with my brother bishops on the Holy Synod, I offer my condolences to all the grieving families, and I pray that they will find hope in the abundant grace of God. May they be given strength at this most painful moment and find comfort along the difficult path that lies ahead. Let no one among us have any fear, but let us remember that our Lord Jesus Christ has overcome fear, has trampled down death, and has granted us eternal life and great mercy.

Rachel weeping for her deceased children (Matthew 2:18)

The Struggle for Virtue

In the Orthodox tradition, on the second Sunday before Christmas, we read at the Divine Liturgy from St. Paul’s Letter to the Colossians 3:4-11.  They are words the Church has come to believe prepare us for the Feast of the Nativity of Christ.  An interesting Epistle, chosen long before there was a consumerist driven notion of the Christmas season.   Perhaps we can compare or contrast the words of St. Paul with what we think is the spirit of the season in our culture:

When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you also once walked when you lived in them. But now you must also put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, where there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcised nor uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave nor free, but Christ is all and in all.

Our modern sense of the “spirit of Christmas” with its warm and fuzzy sentimentality probably cringes to hear in this season mention of  fornication and greed (which St. Paul says is idolatry!).    We like gentle snow fall and warm fires and angels announcing “Peace on earth!” but not  mention of “anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language“.  Although some will admit that is the description of slogging for 30 minutes through one traffic jam trying to get to the mall!

The Church however chooses a passage from St. Paul which suggests to us that Christmas is about us putting “on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him . . .  Christ is all and in all.”   We are not just to keep Christ in Christmas, we are each to put on Christ.  We are to experience our baptisms in which we put on Christ (Galatians 3:27).  Christmas is to be a renewal of our baptisms.

When Christ appears again, we are to appear with Him in glory (that’s how the epistle lesson for the day started – see above).  For us to appear with Him in glory, we need to get rid of all of those elements of our lives that are ungodly and unchristian.  The Christmas season if it has a purpose is to help us clean up our lives so that we can appear with Christ in glory, which means ridding ourselves of sin.  That is a very Christmas theme.

Roman Catholic author Peter Kreeft frequently writes about the moral life for Christians.  We can consider some of his words compared to what St. Paul wrote above:

“Ever since the dawn of the modern era in the Renaissance (i.e., the Regression) and the Enlightenment (i.e., the Darkening), our civilization has been redirecting  more and more of its spiritual interest and energy away from the traditional goal of conforming the soul to God and to the new goal of conforming the world to the desires of the soul, away from ‘thy will be done’ to ‘our will be done’, from playing creature to playing God, from humility to pride. How many of us in the civilization dedicated to ‘man’s conquest of nature’ can even comprehend, much less applaud, C.S. Lewis’ remark, ‘I was not born to be free. I was born to adore and to obey’?  […] Remember what adult suggests in our culture. Remember what adult books, magazines, and movies are like. Remember that Jesus never told us to be ‘adult’ but instead said, ‘Unless you…become as little children, you will by no means enter the Kingdom of Heaven’ (Mt. 18:3). Heaven’s gate is too tiny for any but a child. It is the eye of a needle. Large adult camels must go home to die or be born again as little children.” ( Back to Virtue, pgs. 100-101)

Joseph & Mary’s Journey to Bethlehem

You can find links to all the blogs I have or will post during this year’s Christmas season at 2012 Nativity Blogs.