Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,
This past week, as the nation marked the 10th anniversary of the Sandy Hook School Massacre in which 20 young school children and 6 adult staff members were brutally killed by a young man armed with a high-powered semi-automatic rifle, I couldn’t help thinking of the loved ones of those who were killed. What anguish they must feel at this time year as Christmas approaches. While the wider culture is inundated with ho ho hos and Merry Christmases, these families must revisit what was most assuredly the most traumatic day in their lives and, indeed, for us as a nation. Sadly, today, guns are now the leading cause of deaths among American children and teens, ahead of car crashes, other injuries, and congenital disease.[i]
This time of year is often difficult and painful for many. There are those who are experiencing illness or disease. Some are approaching the first Christmas after the death of loved family member. Others may have some lingering source of pain, trauma, or grief that the holiday times inevitably stir up.
Many years ago, as a parish priest, I received a call on December 22 notifying me of a pastoral emergency. A 22-year old man had been seriously injured in an automobile accident and was in trauma care at the local hospital. His mother and others close to him were at the hospital. He was on life-support and in critical condition. For the next several days, including Christmas Day, I spent considerable time at his bedside holding his mother’s hand, praying, ministering to the steady stream of college students who came to the hospital. On December 27, the decision was made to remove the young man from life support. He died very soon thereafter. It was a tremendously painful Christmas for all who were part of that young man’s life, including me, invited, as I was, into the last chapter of his life. It is also true that the message of the Gospel—the whole of the Gospel—the saving life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, became more meaningful to me through that experience.
As we approach Bethlehem and the manger this Christmas, it is helpful to remember that the power and meaning of Christmas is integrally tied to the cross and Easter. This is beautifully captured in a 15th century piece, “The Adoration of the Kings, and Christ on the Cross,” perhaps a fragment of an altar piece, attributed to Benedetto Bonfigli who worked in the Vatican.
On the left side of the panel is a traditional nativity scene. The right side of the piece has only one figure. It is Christ crucified with blood-stained wounds. There is great poignancy in considering these two events in one panel. This juxtaposition of nativity and passion captures the full essence of the Christian Gospel. Without Christmas, the Incarnation, the en-fleshment of God in Christ and his birth, there is no Passion and there is no Easter. Conversely, had there not been Easter, not been a rising from the dead, the birth of the child in Bethlehem is no different than that of any other birth. This is captured beautifully in the powerful Christmas hymn, A stable lamp is lighted,” #104 in the Hymnal (1982).
This week some of our churches will be offering a “Blue Christmas” or “Longest Night” Service. Some of those services are discussed here. Usually held on December 21 or 22, the longest night of the year, these churches offer liturgies that allow opportunity for those who might find it helpful to prayerfully acknowledge the grief and loss that are a part of their Christmas experience. They also proclaim our Christian truth, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”
May God bless you and yours as we bring Advent 2022 to a close.
Faithfully yours in Christ,
The Right Rev. William H. Stokes
Bishop of New Jersey
[i] See Lopez, German “Gun Violence and Children – A portrait of an American tragedy” – New York Times On-Line – December 15, 2022 found at Gun Violence and Children – The New York Times (nytimes.com)