The Rev. Canon Howard Anderson: “Alleluia”
Special Evening Worship with Prayers
for the Victims, Families and Survivors
of the Tragedy at Virginia Tech
On Friday noon, as the solemn bell of this Cathedral rang 32 times, I had before me the pictures of the beautiful faces of each of those who died in Blacksburg. Blacksburg! Have you been to Blacksburg? It is a bucolic, lovely and seemingly sheltered little mountain town. Some parents sent their children to Blacksburg so that they could learn, untroubled by the violence and danger to which we have become accustomed in cities, like Washington. One parent who was interviewed on the campus of Virginia Tech said, through his tears, “I guess there is no place left that is safe.” Death has come to haunt us, daily, as we hear the reports of massive death tolls in Iraq, where on the very day of the tragedy in Blacksburg, over 200 innocent civilians were killed in one Baghdad market. We have come to realize what the rest of the world has known for some time—that there is no truly safe place left. It comes home to us as brave young men and women in the military from our seemingly safe small towns and close knit suburban and urban neighborhoods come home to be buried. Their pictures in The Post, smiling, hopeful faces, are indistinguishable from the faces of those killed at Virginia Tech. But they are in a war zone.
As the bell tolled, I looked at each face and prayed their names out loud—Juan, Brian, Rachael, Waleed, Mary, Nicole, Reema. They were of every race. They were from around the world and around Virginia. The loss of such potential; the loss of young people whose dreams were snuffed out; the loss of heroic professors who tried to protect their students; this killing is an act so random and mindless that it is disorienting. I cannot even begin to imagine what the families of the victims are feeling. Perhaps only those who lost loved ones in places of unexpected tragedy can begin to understand. The names of these places are like a litany of horror. The University of Texas; Columbine; Oklahoma City; The Red Lake Reservation; the Pentagon; the World Trade Center…It is as if the God many of us say we believe in has gone on vacation, has stopped watching over those for whom we pray. What can we do in the face of such unpredictable and virulently evil acts.
The writer, Ursula LeGuin, in her book the Language of the Night said of evil, “Evil is not something that can be solved, that has an easy answer like a problem in a fifth grade arithmetic book. If you want an answer you just look in the back of the book. That is escapism, that posing evil as a problem, instead of what it is: all the pain and suffering and waste and loss and injustice we will meet all our lives long, and must face and cope with over and over, and admit, and live with, in order to have human lives at all.”
As I stared at the faces of those who died I found myself angry, raging at my inability to do something about this evil, about this cunning and unpredictable death that stalks the world. I found that I wanted to aim this rage at God. In the Psalms of lament, written at a time when the Jewish people were experiencing powerlessness in the face of evil and death, I found a vehicle to unburden myself of the tears, the hopelessness, the anger.
“Deliver me from my enemies oh God! Protect me from those who would work evil, those blood thirsty and savage men lie in wait for me.” But perhaps most poignant for me is Psalm 22, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress? Oh my God I cry in the daytime, but you do not answer, by night as well, but I find no rest.” I believe in a God with whom I have a intimate relationship, a God who is big enough to hear my impotent rage and still love me fiercely, tenderly.
We Christians just celebrated Easter. It is a time when we remember another tragedy, another seemingly senseless death, the cruel and unjust torture and execution of a young religious leader named Jesus. But to this death, and to all deaths, our God said a resounding “NO!” and Jesus Christ was raised from the dead. Our God did not abandon the field to evil and death! These trying times are the times in which Christians and all others of faith must join the chorus at the foot of the open graves about to swallow up our best and brightest young lives and shout “NO” to despair, just as God shouted “no” to death in the resurrection of Jesus. It is a bold and audacious claim that we make at Easter—Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, and that with Him, we all might inherit eternal life. In the readings this day we are assured that God is not distant, not indifferent to our pain. “See, the home of God is among mortals…God will wipe away every tear…death will be no more…mourning and crying and pain will be no more…Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.” And because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and because of the promise that God is with us, even to the end of the age, we dare to say even at the grave, “Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!” In time, our laments will be turned into alleluias.
The alleluias might seem not to fit this day of remembrance. But for me, the only answer to the tragedy and torture of Good Friday and April 16th, is the Easter resurrection. Evil and death’s worst efforts to drag us into despair and hopelessness fail when we embrace life and love. I would abandon hope in the face of the tragedy at Blacksburg, or the carnage in the market in Baghdad without that resurrection promise. As a Christian, I do not worship a God who sits impassively by and does nothing in the face of the evil and death that struck on April 16.
My friend, Sheila McJilton, an Episcopal Priest, wrote a strikingly vivid poem about the Virginia Tech tragedy. One shocking, yet truth filled stanza says:
Against April gun metal afternoon sky,
Wailing of mothers rips the heart open.
Anguish of fathers bruises souls.
Stunned silence of friends hangs suspended in cold air.
The early morning snow-flaked beauty explodes in crimson.
And the sweet souls of the innocent dance unexpectedly
From earth’s chains into the incredible lightness of heaven.
Where was my God in the carnage? Eli Wiesel, in his book, Night, tells of a concentration camp hanging of two Jewish men and a boy. As the inmates were forced to watch, the two men died quickly, but the young boy struggled for half an hour. “Where is God? Where is he? A man behind Wiesel asked. As the boy continued to struggle in agony on the rope the man again cried, “Where is God now?” And Wiesel heard a voice from within himself say, “Here he is…he is hanging here on this gallows.”
There is no human pain that our God does not know, has not experienced, NOT in some kind of disembodied empathy from somewhere on high, with pain but in frail and ever so mortal human flesh, just like ours. My God was there in the classroom, there in the dying, fulfilling the promise that we just revisited in our prayers, “Gracious God, nothing in death or life, in the world, nothing in all creation can separate us from your love.”
The God I know and worship was there in the dying moments of these lovely young people, because God in Christ knows the terror of shouting “why have you forsaken me,” and knows the abject fear of giving up one’s spirit. My God was right there…there on the floor of the classrooms. My God was there, embracing the dying. My God was there through those brave souls who protected and comforted. I know in every fiber of my being the truth that NOTHING can separate me, and each one of the innocent who died from the love of a God, who on Easter morning rolled away the stone of the cold tomb and burst forth from the grave singing alleluia, alleluia, alleluia…life has overcome death, good has overcome evil, even though we die, we will be alive in Christ.
The poet and Virginia Tech professor, Nikki Giovanni expressed wonderfully that despite the magnitude of the tragedy that took the lives and peace of her beloved and unique colleagues and students, all humankind does fall under the loving eye of God. She said, “We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does a child dying of AIDS in Africa.” Giovanni, in her talk to the Virginia Tech community gave a striking, fist shaking answer to tragedy and death saying, “We are Virginia Tech. We ARE the Hokie nation. We WILL NOT be afraid! We will go on! We will learn We will triumph!”
There is no safe place to hide from violence. There is no haven from death. But I listen with great admiration to the members of the Virginia Tech Community saying a firm and resounding “No!” to despair and death. A student leader proclaimed, “We WILL take back our classrooms. We WILL take back our dorms. We WILL take back our campus.” And all across Virginia, across the United States, people are wearing the colors and praying for “The Hokie Nation!” All across the nation people are pledging to remember those who have died. All across the world we are saying “NO” to despair and praying for the grieving families of those who were lost.
Capt. Steve Timm, a military chaplain serving in Iraq’s Anbar Province has said, “Pain and anger are not the opposite of faith and love…indifference is.” And so for those of us who would dare to say “no” to despair and death, we can also have the courage to say “no” to those who would allow guns to be sold so readily to those who might kill with them. You will notice that as Christians, we will pray for (Seung-Hui Cho) and his family. He, too, is a child of God, and a victim of the social stigma attached to depression and other mental illness which prevents people from getting the help they need. We can say a resounding “no” to that system and bring mental illness out of the darkness and into the light.
Jesus said over and over again to those who followed him, “Be not afraid!” Like Nikki Giovanni, like student leaders at Virginia Tech, we must reject fear. Our anger and laments will help us heal, but they will run their course, and God’s love for us and all God created are without end. God’s triumph over death in the resurrection of Jesus Christ allows us to mourn, grieve and comfort one another and then face squarely into doing those things we can do to say “yes” to life and “no” to death, evil and the attending despair they breed.
So as we remember those who have died, we can join the chorus, even at the grave, and sing our brave song of life: “alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.” Amen.