A somber Christmas in Newtown

Residents seek answers to painful questions, as Americans turn increasingly to religious vigils.

Christmas in Newtown 370 (photo credit: Michael Wilner)
Christmas in Newtown 370
(photo credit: Michael Wilner)
NEWTOWN – On the night of December 14, just hours after a mass shooting at the local elementary school ripped comfort and security away from the wealthy residents of Newtown, Connecticut, Elizabeth Cleary found herself alone in this small town’s Catholic church at 1 a.m. The teacher of 26 years clasped her hands and wept as she sat in her pew.
That evening, she found solace in a presence that she swears she could physically feel – and very nearly see.
“When I was here that night, there were these tiny candles,” she says. “There was no wind at all, and no breeze – but their flames were dancing. You can tell that their presence lingers for a while. And you can feel it when they let go.”
Since 2005, Pope Benedict XVI has called on Americans to resist materialism and reclaim the true meaning of Christmas: the celebration of the birth of Jesus, brought into the world ultimately to die for man’s sins.
That message is reverberating throughout Newtown’s churches, town halls and households this holiday season, challenging residents in their search for unattainable answers to why 20 of their children and six adults were brutally slain two weeks ago.
Their efforts to resolve the existence of evil in their perfectly manicured town through prayer, spirituality and stock symbolism have highlighted a uniquely American trend – that as the frequency of such mass killings has increased, reliance on religiously charged vigils has become predictably commonplace.
Reid Hettich, a pastor for 27 years at the Mosaic Church of Aurora, Colorado, had the unfortunate task of organizing a vigil in the immediate aftermath of a mass shooting in a local movie theater that killed 12 people and wounded 59. He noticed that people only nominally affiliated with a religion turned to faith in his town after its people came under attack.
“Certainly, I think there’s an immediate spike in faith, and that goes away to some degree,” Hettich says. “But there’s a greater awareness that there just aren’t good answers, apart from belief.”
Just after the shooting in Aurora, he was surprised to hear from local government officials that they specifically wanted a prayer vigil, and not a non-denominational, candlelight ceremony – one still representative of America’s diverse faiths, but fundamentally religious at its core.
“There seems to be this recurrent trend in American politics that government and the social order rely on religious agreement,” says David Sehat, author of The Myth of American Religious Freedom. “And when there are tears in that social order, they turn to religion proper for the restoration of those fixtures.”
In Tucson, Arizona, where six people were killed and US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was severely wounded in a 2011 shooting rampage, religious leaders from across the spectrum came together to hold a prayer vigil – and found themselves gathering for yet another vigil this month to honor Newtown’s fallen.
“The frequency is going up, there’s no doubt about it,” says Dana Yentzer, pastor at Tucson Church International. “And I do wonder if the vigils themselves will lose their impact if that continues. But from a pastoral standpoint, I try to provide hope again, no matter what the circumstance.”
At root of concerns over the frequency of these vigils is a confounding theodical question: whether a benevolent, all-powerful, omniscient God should be listening in on all these calls for the killing to stop. One widely known expert on the role of religion in America notes that while this problem rarely bubbles into public debate, any country as wedded to rituals as the United States is must bear the consequences of defending them – namely facing tough questions.
“The central question is, if you keep having rituals like this, don’t you learn eventually that God isn’t stopping what’s happening? That evoking God is not getting the job done?” says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a history scholar at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. “And it may be the simple answer is that people just don’t think that’s God’s job.”
But this shooting feels different – at least to President Barack Obama, who wept at word of the news out of Newtown. Brushing away tears, he quoted scripture when ending remarks on the shooting at the White House; he opened with words from the Bible at a vigil two days later in Connecticut.
Returning to St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church on Christmas Eve, Cleary shed tears once more, genuflecting before turning to leave the Newtown refuge (though shooting rampages have not spared houses of worship; a Sikh temple in Wisconsin was targeted only five months prior). She leaves behind a manger empty of the baby Jesus – a potent polysemic image speaking to an absence of youth, or perhaps adequate faith, in Newtown, a place already saturated with symbolism.
In the wintered garden of the church, surrounded by teddy bears and toy angels endowed with all the suffering of their past owners, she calls herself disenfranchised with her religion, while still a compulsory participant.
“I don’t think you have to have faith to enjoy these vigils,” says Marleen Cafarelli, a resident of Newtown for over 30 years. “It’s about the community coming together to distribute the pain. It’s what we need right now.”
Community may be the godliness that Newtown seeks to restore in its ceremony.
Indeed, if there were any one thing, it may just be community that separates this place – along with Tucson, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Oak Creek and Columbine – from the many other American neighborhoods that see similar crimes on a much more frequent basis.
At the firehouse down the street from Sandy Hook Elementary – where parents stood for hours waiting for their children, only to pierce the thin December air with echoing wails as they heard the worst – one fireman, Michael Reyen, looks wearily toward the door after a trying two weeks.
“Most everybody has gone to the vigils because it’s just part of the healing process, myself included,” he says. “But at this point, I just want to spend Christmas at home with my family.”