18 December 2012

Preaching after a massacre?

Q: Fr., what do pastors say at funerals after massacres like the one in Newtown?

A: Below is the homily I preached on April 17, 2007 at U.D.  Of course, none of the survivors or family members were present. . .and changes everything. . .

Office of the Dead: Vespers for the Living and the Dead of Virginia Tech
Reading: 1 Corinthians 15.50-58
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, Irving, TX

We the living here pray this Office of the Dead for the living and the dead of Virginia Tech. May the splendid light of our Risen Lord shine through your loss and bring you all to his peace.

Just barely two weeks beyond our celebration of the Resurrection of the Lord, we are confronted with the heart-rending news that a young man, lost to all reason and swallowed by despair, has killed thirty-three men and women at his university. What seems at first a distant act of criminal insanity quickly becomes a tragedy played against the joyous drama of Easter, and we cannot help but think that each shot fired, each plea for help, each cry for a reason why betrays our trust, turns us opposed to the emptied tomb, and begs us to wade—just a toe! just to the ankles!—begs us to wade angrily into the same despair that dragged this young man to murder. It has happened again. Evil wears a face and dares us to answer in kind! And what do we say? How do we answer this horror?

We know that our Lord is risen from the tomb! Fewer than two weeks ago, in this church, we raised our alleluias in praise of Christ who defeated death in the grave and joined his Father in heaven. We renewed our baptismal vows, welcomed new brothers and sisters into the Body, and heard over and over again in prayer and song that nothing binds us to death; nothing holds us against despair; nothing, no one defeats us—not sin, not the grave, nothing of this world has the authority to catch and hold the hearts of those who blind the darkness with God’s joy and silences the voices of despair with hope—hope sung or shouted or even whispered! Our answer to death then was: alleluia! Amen! He is risen!

But now, right now: do those alleluias sound weak? Do they echo back from Virginia—alone and vain? Paul asks, “Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” Death’s victory is in the hallways and dorm rooms and labs and courtyards of Virginia Tech. Death’s sting sits proudly on the cheeks of mothers and fathers who stare into a future once full of graduations and weddings and grandchildren. Death has stung husbands and wives. Professors, cafeteria and facilities workers, students and cops. Death stung Cho-Seung Hui long before he surrendered his life to the bullet that killed him. Is this Death’s victory? In this mourning hour, watching the misery and grief pour out of Virginia, aren’t we sorely tempted to answer, “Yes. Yes, this time, death has won.”

And what will we do now? Tighten security. Screen students more carefully. Offer better counseling. Put up more cameras. Pass stronger laws, better enforcement. No doubt, we will do all these things. But will we do the one thing, the only thing that will defy this spirit of Dark Loss, that will deny this horror its despairing power; will we do the one thing, the only thing that will matter to eternity? Will we HOPE more and better, will we LOVE more and better, will we TRUST more and better? Will we do the only thing that will deny evil another face? Will we carry those joyous Easter alleluias with us? Put them on our lips? Wear them on our sleeves? Will we bring them closer to our hearts than our own names? Ever ready to shout: He is risen!

We know how to answer despair’s seduction and death’s sting. What do we here in Irving have to say to our brothers and sisters in Virginia? I simply do not know right now. Everything comes out muddled. My chest hurts just imagining the pain and loss, the incredible desecration of it all. The waste. I just don’t know. There is a great silence, however, a stillness that says everything that can be said. Put your heart’s voice there and sit for a while with both loss and abundance.

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