This Third week in Advent begins today with what we call, “Rejoicing Sunday”. Today, we light the one pink candle that stands out in the midst of the three purple ones on our Advent wreath. But as I write this, our lives are shocked by yet another profound human tragedy in our midst, the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newton, Conn.
It was a very busy morning at my house. I quickly got Johanna up and ready for her day in the midst of trying to rush out the door for an early doctor appointment for myself. When I finally arrived home, Johanna had just finished reading about Hanukah with her teacher and they were gathering kitchen staples to help them make potato latkes. My husband and I changed shifts as he rushed out the door and I rushed around the house getting ready for our monthly visit from our nurse case manager.
The nurse and I covered a lot of ground, discussing seizures, treatment plans, paperwork and upcoming medical appointments. At some point, I looked down at my phone to realize that my husband was trying to get a hold of me. The next sequence of events was kind of a blur as he conveyed some details on the shootings and I realized that they were very near my sister’s home, work and her children’s schools. I quickly sent my sister a text to ask if they were safe. She said yes, they were safe but the girls’ schools were both in lock down. She was still at work at one of the nearby hospitals and my nieces were huddled in the corner of their classrooms in what was referred to as a “Code Blue” lock down; the real deal. My sister later explained the districts feared a copycat or possibly even multiple school shootings happening in the chaos of this tragic event. A few texts and a one-minute, tear-filled phone call was all we could connect during this very long day.
Later in the evening, she called, exhausted from the day, but oh-so-grateful to be home with her husband and their three beautiful girls ages 10, 14 and 16. My two eldest nieces attend the same high school and were supporting one another through texts from behind the locked doors of their classrooms. My youngest niece borrowed a friend’s cell phone to text my sister and ask her when she could come to take her home. Chills ran up my spine as my sister conveyed to me how she worked so hard to maintain her cool at work as a nurse, waiting for the school dismissals and approvals to gather her girls to the safety of her arms. There were much tears and kisses when the family was finally reunited.
I cancelled plans for a girls’ night out because I just could not stop crying as the stories and images poured into my living room and over the phone as I listened to my sister’s own grief and exhaustion from a harrowing day. In the back of my mind, I kept thinking about Hanukkah, Advent and Christmas and how these families were never going to be the same, especially during the holiday season.
Then I thought of this day, “Rejoicing Sunday,” knowing from my own struggles with life-changing grief and pain, that joy and pain really are closely united. As much as we wish to separate the two; birth from death, happiness from sorrow, peace from war, they seemingly come into our lives hand in hand.
The most famous dichotomy is the Cross and the Resurrection. As Christians, it signifies for us the truth that from every death, new life will emerge. For Jesus it took three days; for most of us it takes a lifetime. The parents and families of those who perished on this fateful day will never get over their loss in this lifetime. As my friend who lost a daughter many years ago answers those who ask her why she still grieves; “I grieve because my daughter is still dead.” No matter that faith tells us to believe that death brings new life, we still grieve our losses.
On this Rejoicing Sunday, the scripture readings of the day provide us with a secret tool which can help us connect the dots between sorrow and joy. In the words of Philippians 4:4-7:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your kindness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This scripture exhorts us to find something to be thankful for in every situation. This can be so hard at times of great sorrow. I believe this is why Paul encourages us to kindness. We can only give what we have received, so we are to be kind and gentle with ourselves first. Rejoicing and being grateful in the midst of our greatest pain takes enormous courage. So let’s remember to be gentle with ourselves as we bridge the chasm between our sorrows and joy. Then we can share that kindness to others who also grieve, being sensitive to their loss.
After this, we are reminded of the reason we can rejoice: the Lord is near. The Psalmist tells us “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted.” (Psalm 34:19) That is a promise to hold onto in the midst of this pain. At times like this, even news reporters and elected officials are calling for people to pray and take hope in their faith. We console each other, reminding one another that indeed the Lord is near. Let yourself soak up the sense of God’s presence through meditation and in the loving actions of those who care. Knowing the Lord is near helps us to take the next step in this scripture and dismiss anxiety.
This verse, indeed a command, conveys that we have authority, given us by God over our thoughts and emotions. Anxiety can have a powerful effect in our lives, but as we choose to be grateful in all things, we can put these feelings in their proper place and surrender all of our situations over to God in prayer.
At the end of these verses, the goal and the promise of rejoicing are revealed. God’s own peace, beyond human understanding, especially in such difficult circumstances, stands guard over our hearts and minds. What more could we ask for than a sentinel of peace standing guard over us in such frightening times?
On this Rejoicing Sunday, let us take joy in knowing Christ is near. Let us present our needs with petitions full of thanksgiving for the life we have been given, certain that God’s peace, which is beyond our understanding, will guard and protect our taunted minds and weary hearts.
“Even if the forces of darkness appear to prevail, those who believe in God know that evil and death do not have the final say. Christian hope is based on this truth; at this time our prayerful trust draws strength from it.” — Blessed John Paul II
Eileen Benthal has a B.A. in theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer, speaker and wellness coach at 40DaysToFocus.com and NOFO Wellness Center. She works with clients locally and around the U.S. who are excited about balancing their health in body, mind and spirit.
Eileen and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Their youngest, 16-year-old Johanna, is a teenager with special needs. Eileen can be reached at email@example.com andfacebook.com/40DaysToFocus.