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.
My children seemed even smaller today, even more fragile and fleeting.
The whole day shifted, slanted towards helpless with the news. Everything felt ugly and overwhelming and exhausting, like being punched in the chest, the core of my heart.
What to say or do or think in the face of horror, of violence wrenched upon a corner of the world, so much like our quiet own, ripped inside out and left bleeding and broken and raw beyond recognition?
The second I got home, I gathered my boys in my arms, smothered their hair with my kisses. Tried to breathe in the simple fact of their existence before they squirmed away. Before they went back to laughing, playing, whining, reading. Being.
For the rest of the day I watched them with other eyes.
I watched them from the corner of the kitchen over dinner. From the bedroom doorway during bathtime. From the top of the stairs while they giggled under the Christmas tree.
I lingered on the normalcy of our night, the ordinary peace of our day. And with every regular breath I felt behind it the weight of families in nightmares, the wail of parents plunged into the deepest loss, the darkness I cannot close my eyes to name.
. . .
Both boys’ skin seemed translucent today. The palest flesh on such small bones, warm blood racing through thin veins just below the surface. At any moment, it seemed, their heart could stop and mine would, too. Any ordinary day. A day of school or church or the mall or the movies – nothing feels safe, nothing feels sacred anymore.
After I cuddled the smallest to sleep, I paused for a moment by our front door. The strong steel door, the door with the lock and deadbolt, the door that blocks the world outside. The thought of opening it tomorrow, of grasping their small mittened hands and leading them out into the cold, choked me with overwhelming.
Taking a single step outside seems an act of faith after a day darkened by so much death. It’s an exhausting prospect, this vulnerable living, this throwing ourselves back out into the world, day after day, never knowing how or when the end will come for those we love, whether that end will be sudden or violent or terrifying or tragic. We never know; we can only keep going. And trying and helping and loving along the way. The simplest acts of living, of chosing to go on, become a daring defiance of violence and hatred and evil and horror.
. . .
This afternoon, my oldest, oblivious to the news I’d flipped off, asked with a grin if we could to do some baking. I figured there was nothing else to do but to do something.
We pulled out flour and eggs, peanut butter and chocolate chips. He snuck extra licks from the spoon as we stirred. I figured life’s too short to care about a few germs.
His baby brother grabbed the sugar canister and stuck his chubby fists inside, spilling out handfuls on the floor. I figured why not add some sweetness to the day.
So we baked. We sang. We played piano. We danced in spinning circles before bedtime, once more, always once more, once more extra on a broken, bittersweet, too-much night like tonight.
In short, we lived. And tomorrow, I pray we will get up and do the same.
Tonight my babies are tucked safe and sleeping in bed. But tonight I think of all the beds that go empty, all the places on the globe where violence and murder and fear are all-too-familiar. I think about God’s head bowing low, bearing the weight of all this pain, grieving the world so far from its created beauty.
I wonder how we go on. But I know that we go on. I am left with nothing but the sheer aliveness of the ones I love, the stubborn fact that we are still here.
That we still have to face the test of tomorrow.