We were still in the glow of the Christmas celebrations. Hearts had been opened and turned outward, especially towards those who have little to celebrate in their day-to-day lives. Families had gathered, and worshipped together, as hope was reborn in the coming of the Prince of Peace.
Then the earth moved in the depths of the ocean. The Richter scale recorded a 9.0 earthquake, enough to shift the axis of the planet ever so slightly. The resulting tsunami waves have wreaked damage on a scale unprecedented in nature. Their legacy is the death of more than 150,000 victims, and millions left homeless – many in desperate need of the bare necessities of clean water and medical attention.
The outpouring of response after the initial shock came from all over the world. Our common vulnerability before the forces of nature had been touched. There are modern disasters of greater proportions. Recent genocide on the African continent and the AIDS pandemic claim many more victims. But these are man-made disasters which are preventable. As challenging as they may be to faith, it is a natural catastrophe that brings questions we are at a loss to answer. “How can God allow such a thing? How can we believe in a God of life, light, love and hope in the face of such destruction? Is Christmas totally eclipsed?” It seems that a reading in the Epiphany liturgy from Isaiah bears down upon us: “See darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples.”
I am reminded that Jesus was born into the darkness of our human experience. In the warm glow of the birth narrative, we are inclined to overlook the terror that made of the child and his family refugees in fear of their lives, and drove them from the country. I am reminded of the slaughter of the children in Bethlehem. And I am reminded that his life ended in the horror of his suffering and death on the cross. He lived and died as one of us – Emanuel, God with us.
In the worst of human and natural disasters there is a glimmer of hope. Is it the light of Christ that lights every person which can never be put out? It is a spark that is always strong enough to kindle hope, to open human hearts, and to move them to acts of self-sacrificing generosity, and even heroism. It offers the possibility of humanity coming together in common cause that transcends the conflicts and disasters of our own making. Is there in this the possibility that we might become more thoughtful stewards of all that God entrusts to us? Is there a message here for the church?
These are questions I wrestle with as I search for meaning in apparent chaos. While some remain unanswerable, through the pain and loss suffered by so many I am left with a conviction, and yet another question. I know that light shines most brightly in darkness, and that ultimately God’s love revealed in Christ will prevail. And I wonder as the process of healing and reconstruction goes forward, will we find that the axis of our common life has shifted as well, ever so slightly, for the better?
Archbishop Andrew Hutchison is primate of the Anglican Church of Canada.