How can this be?
My brother Marc died in 1977. Exhausted from working several jobs and simultaneously earning an undergraduate degree in business, Marc fell asleep at the wheel while returning home from his work in a Newport jazz club as a guitarist. A state trooper witnessed the entire event. He watched my brother’s head drift down onto his chest and the car fall off a bridge, plunging to the lower causeway below. The officer reported that the impact heaved Marc’s body out of the car door in a way that caused him to break his neck. Marc’s autopsy report showed no traces of alcohol. Marc died at age 23 of a broken neck. My family died of a broken heart the Sunday that followed Thanksgiving in 1977. In the days and weeks following his death, my mother kept repeating in a dazed stupor,”How can this be? How can this be?”
Marc left behind a wife and three year old daughter in addition to my parents, siblings and a wide circle of family and friends. In the weeks, months and years that followed, we slowly awakened from the numbing grief that violent death causes to resume a life that changed forever due to a circumstance out of our control. Our identities and roles changed. My brother’s wife became a widow and a single parent. Marc’s daughter became a fatherless child. My parents added another son to their unfathomable losses; their first son died soon after birth. I became a 25 year old sister with two deceased brothers and one surviving brother who lived out West. My heart numbed with anesthetic protection for years; I went into survival mode. The deadening effect released in 1984, the year that I married my husband.
In the weeks, months and years following my brother’s death, I became a hands-on aunt to Marc’s young daughter. My little niece accompanied me in the classrooms where I taught, the theater where I directed shows, the churches where I worked as a pastoral musician. She came with me and my friends to bistros and museums, beaches and campgrounds and helped me select my engagement ring when my husband proposed. My niece prepared me for parenting my own children years before their birth.
Married with young children of her own, Marc’s daughter remains close to me and to our family. The week that my mother died, she bundled up her infant daughter and came to spend the week with us to be on hand to help care for my mother in the days before she died. My brother’s death offered me an opportunity to find richness within the rubble: my niece continues to be a beautiful blessing to me and to my family. New roles present new opportunities to grow and change in ways we cannot imagine.
In the wake of Newtown events as the town buries its dead, I wonder at the millions of people who suffer unspeakable anguish every day as a result of early death. “How can this be?” is a mantra repeated all too frequently. I cannot speak to the experience of the loss of a child. Although I am a parent, I would never insult someone who suffers the death of their child by saying, “I know how you feel.” I do not and cannot fathom the depth of that grief.
I witnessed first-hand what life after a child’s death looks like through my own parents. We spoke of the loss of both of their sons often. At age 92, Dad tells me that the wounds still feel fresh when he watches the events of Newtown unfold. He prays for them daily. “They need God’s help now. They’ll need faith every day of their lives to survive this,” he tells me. When I speak with other parents who know this life-altering loss of a child, they reveal similar emotions. One friend who lost a daughter spoke candidly. “It still feels like a nightmare. You say to yourself, ‘How can this be? I’m supposed to go first.’ But you wake up from the nightmare and realize that you do go on, want to go on, will go on. And there is life on the other side of the nightmare. Life is never the same but you do go on.” Healing can occur with prayer, time, a community of care and a lot of patience.
Sometimes I think we really don’t see scriptural people in terms of their humanity. Consider Mary, mother of Jesus. In Luke’s gospel, Mary steps into a role completely unprepared for what she will face throughout in her lifetime. (Lk 1:26-38) She accepts God’s invitation to become the mother of the Christ. “How can this be?” she asks and receives an unexpected and preposterous answer. She will be the mother of God but only if she accepts God’s invitation. What are some of the life changing events she will encounter because of her response? Here’s a quick survey of just a few hurdles that we know about:
Mary’s betrothed husband’s disbelief and anguish at the preposterous news of her pregnancy.
Stoning by law if her betrothed husband exposes her to the public.
Traveling far from her home and away from the help of family and friends during the last month of her pregnancy.
Birthing her infant son in a stable cave among animals and using rags to keep him clean and warm.
Depending on shepherds to affirm and acknowledge that this child’s birth was no ordinary matter.
Immigrating to a foreign country to escape a terrorist, a tyrannical ruler seeking to kill her child.
Hearing a warning from an old prophet in a temple who tells her that her heart will be pierced as she presents her infant son for circumcision.
Widowed as a young woman.
Witnessing her only son’s disastrous trial and death as a criminal at the age of 33.
Could Mary be prepared for all the roles that played out in her lifetime? With those words, “Let it be done unto me according to your word,” Mary stepped into her role as a wife, a mother, an immigrant, a young widow, a motherless child and a woman who knows heartbreak in the same way the people in Newtown know heartbreak, the same way my parents experienced heartbreak, the same way that anyone who knows the gnaw and ache of grief knows heartbreak. “How can this be?” must have sounded in her heart many times.
I can tell you from first-hand experience that what it feels like to sing songs of hope and resurrection in the face of crushing agony. I served as the pastoral musician when my brother died. I watched his coffin come down the aisle as I led sung prayer. I watched as hundreds of people, so many of them young and searching for answers to the questions that inevitably surface when young people die. Why? How can this be? Where is God? And I can tell you from first-hand experience that I have never felt the presence of God more than in that hour when I had to give everything I had inside me to minister at my brother’s funeral that terrible day. Christ isn’t absent during these difficulties; he’s with us in the middle of the mess. I believed it then and I still believe it with my whole heart. The magnificent gift of God’s grace is that it’s always with us, especially in the moments when we cry out, “How can this be?”
Fr, Robert Weiss, the pastor at Saint Rose parish in Newtown, CT buried many children this week. He faced hundreds of people agonizing over the question, “How can this be?” In an interview, he offered these words.
"Where else but the church could we bring this unspeakable act? Where else but the altar could we find some resolution? People bring their wounded and shattered selves here for healing, mending and transcendence."
I pray that this Christmas, wherever life may find you, that you bring your wounds, your joys, your anxieties, your grief and despair, your hopes and dreams, your fears and doubts to the God who loved us enough to become one of us. Like Mary, I hope that no matter what life inevitably presents, you trust that faith will sustain you and carry you to the next part of your journey. I pray that this Christmas, when you may ask, “How can this be?” in whatever confronts you in life that you grow in your relationship with the Christ that came as child born in poverty and lived, died and rose again to show us all the way to be fully human.