God’s presence in evil
The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
The past few days have been very rough for our nation. Everyone, from our President to every parent, teacher, every person who knows the innocence and beauty of children, is sickened by the horrific massacre at the Newtown, Connecticut elementary school. We can’t imagine the suffering of those kids who were killed, their parents, and the surviving children, who will be scarred for life. And it makes us feel vulnerable to the potential of random violence. This could happen anywhere, to anyone.
The fact that this has also happened recently in Oregon, Colorado and other places makes us sometimes wonder what has happened to our society. Many conclude that our moral fabric is unraveling. I don’t see it this way. I think there’s always been about the same amount of goodness and evil in the world. Imagine what a violent place medieval Europe must have been, or New York in the 19th century. The difference today is simply that the deranged who are full of hate have access to an unprecedented flood of guns, especially automatic weapons, making their killing that much more devastating.
In times such as these we reach for something to prevent more tragedies. Some will, and should, focus their outrage towards “meaningful action,” as our President said. This public conversation needs to happen with an urgency we have not yet summoned, regardless of the politics or pressure of well-funded lobby groups.
In addition to the search for meaningful action, there is, in the background, a much bigger question. It is our struggle with the reality of evil. How could someone do this? How did they become so dark? What does it say about the human condition that such things are possible? In incidents like these, what is always lurking in the background - war, torture, tyranny, robbery, abuse, rape, gang warfare - comes rushing to the foreground, and there is no escaping what we’d usually rather not think about: evil. How do we deal with it? If we need something more helpful than philosophical speculation about it, what does our faith tradition have to offer us?
Some imagine that by faith and prayer, they can protect themselves and their loved ones from evil. Others imagine a religious revival that will root out the cause of moral decay. But neither of these have ever really worked. I’m sure many of those Newtown families prayed every day for God’s protecting hand. And religious movements attempting to reform society have come and gone.
What remains from our faith tradition is one thing, but it is more than enough. It is God’s presence. When God entered human history in the life of Jesus, God did not offer a shield against danger for everyone or a practical social program. Bad things continued to happen. King Herod, like Adam Lanza on Friday, slaughtered the innocents after the wise men told him of the Savior’s birth. They crucified Jesus. The Romans remained as an oppressive occupying force, and shortly after Christ, destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the chosen people.
What God offered in Jesus Christ, and what God offers all of us all the time, is presence. In Christ, God revealed the light of divine truth and love, and there it stood, pure and unguarded, before the whole world. That’s what God always does. Hear the words of our first reading again: Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord. [You] shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst.
“What good is that?” you might ask, “to have God just standing around?” Well, I can think of at least two benefits that come from God’s presence. The first is a clear choice. The divine truth and love reveal the clear choice we have - the responsibility - as to how we shall respond to it.
We see this truth and love unveiled in God’s Word in scripture, in scriptures of every faith tradition. We see it in Christ and every enlightened figure or saint through history. We see it in this room as we celebrate the sacrament. We see it in nature. We see it wherever holiness shines forth. As St. Paul urged the congregation in Philippi,
Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
We think about these things, and we make choices that are in our power to make, and good prevails through us. We have the power to choose to not become an Adam Lanza, and instead, to guard our children. We have the power to affect meaningful legislative action that will make our nation more safe. We have the power to be compassionate, to understand, to forgive, to forsake addiction and hatred and everything else that destroys God’s creation. We have the power to choose to be good because God shows us what is good.
This was one of the effects of the appearance of the Virgin of Guadalupe, whose feast we celebrate this day. She too witnessed to the presence of God, to divine goodness, mercy, and light. By her presence, some of the Spanish clergy and conquistadors chose to think about those things that are honorable, just, and commendable, and they fought against the slavery and abuse of the indigenous people. Because of the Virgin of Guadalupe’s continuing presence and witness to God in the Americas, there are gang members who choose to forsake their life of crime, drugs, and violence, and help others escape the same cycle.
Secondly, God’s presence brings us comfort. This is more important than we may ever realize. Imagine what life would be like for a child who survived the recent massacre in Newtown if she didn’t have a loving parent to hold her on Friday night. Imagine what your life would be like if you had no comfort, no understanding, and you were all alone in the world.
Other people can provide this presence, and God is certainly present through them. But God is also present to us as God. For when we pray or meditate, if we can settle down beneath our hopes and worries of the day, if we can settle into this pew and open our heart to God’s presence, an amazing thing happens. God comes to us, rising up from within. We experience God’s peace that passes all understanding. We know, deep in our souls, that no matter what our circumstances, all shall be well in God.
This is not the simplistic assurance that nothing bad will happen. It is the transcendent and unshakeable understanding that we are precious and beloved to God, and it is in God that we live and move and have our being, and that nothing can threaten this. Sing and rejoice! You shall be my people; and I will be your God.
This is the message of the Incarnation - God came among us to share our life. This is the experience of Jesus on the cross, moving from “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me,” to the peace that passes even that circumstance and led him to finally say “Into your hands I commend my spirit.” This is what will get the people of Newtown Connecticut through the days, months, and years ahead.
And this is what the Virgin of Guadalupe has offered to millions of Latin Americans from 1531 to the present day: the comfort of God’s loving presence. She has stood like a rock in the midst of their poverty, oppression and personal suffering, saying, like a mother, “You are precious and beloved, so I will always be with you. God is with you. You are not alone.”
Today, as the great festival of Christmas draws near, the pure and unguarded presence of a divine child stands before us to offer us the choice for goodness and the comfort of peace. In a world that is sometimes frighteningly evil, this choice and this comfort is the only thing we can hold on to. It is all that God has ever offered, and it has always been more than enough.