Amid a sea of sorrow, manifest by wave after wave of visitors from different parts of the nation, Chip Carpenter, a police officer in Newtown, Conn., told a CBS reporter from New York that with the funerals and the mourning that has transformed his city, "you almost forget that holidays are here."
He won't get much argument, either in his town or among those who have been touched in some way by the massacre of small children at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Life stands still when innocents are murdered. Little else seems consequential.
And yet the holidays — more precisely the one that will be celebrated Tuesday — are precisely what ought to be remembered at a time like this.
Senseless violence, even the wholesale slaughter of innocent children, is not a new invention. It even has its place in the Christmas story. The Bible records that King Herod, ever jealously guarding his power and angered by prophecies that a king had been born in Bethlehem, ordered the murders of all male children there under the age of 2.
The mourning was certainly no less in Bethlehem than it is in Newtown, nor was it any less than in countless tragedies in the world's history, regardless of their cause. Eight years ago this Wednesday, a tsunami crashed onto shores in Asia and East Africa, killing about a quarter of a million people, many of them children. We naturally put the adjective "senseless" next to any tragedy that includes little children or that takes a life before what we consider to be its time. And yet such things happen virtually every day somewhere on the planet.
The real meaning of Tuesday morning has little to do with material possessions, Black Friday or the ham that may be the centerpiece of a banquet. It has everything to do with God's gift of a child who came to wipe away the tears and bring meaning to it all.
It is a meaning that can be seen only through faith, the only lens through which tragedies such as Newtown's can be endured with any sense of hope.
A recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that one-fifth of people in the U.S., and one-third of those under 30, are religiously unaffiliated. Nearly 6 percent of the nation now identifies itself as atheist or agnostic, a small band that has grown vocal in recent years.
Some atheists have become evangelistic, erecting billboards in search of converts. One in New York's Times Square this year features pictures of Santa and Jesus with the phrase, "Keep the Merry! Dump the Myth!"
And yet the most their philosophy can offer the people of Newtown is to say, "We are sorry for you, but your children are gone forever." There is no justice. There is no meaning. The "merry" they speak of can be had only if one willfully ignores the tragedies and abuses that daily happen worldwide. Otherwise, despair swallows any claim to happiness.
Tuesday morning is all about a man of whom the Prophet Isaiah said, "The chastisement of our peace was upon him, and with his stripes, we are healed."
News accounts tell of an ever-growing makeshift memorial in front of Sandy Hook Elementary. A local firehouse donated 26 Christmas trees, one for each victim. Teddy bears, flowers, candles and notes are stuffed into the space. Visitors come from several states away, seeking comfort, and also seeking to bring comfort.
At an interfaith memorial service, the New York Daily News reported on a conversation between a child and a mother. "All those little children, are they with the angels now?" the little girl wanted to know.
Her mother didn't hesitate to assure the little girl that those who died were indeed in a wonderful place.
Christmas morning offers the hope that this really is true; that life does matter; and that little children who died in kindergarten won't all be forgotten in time or in a cloud of cosmic radiation that ends the world some day.
That is a great reason to pause amid sorrow and remember the holiday.