Writing his Christmas homily this year, the Rev. Michael J. Dolan has a memory that will influence him — he was part of a team that had to tell a mother and father that their first-grader had died in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School.
"Christmas — usually it's easy," said Dolan, who heads priest recruitment for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford. "It's upbeat. It's happy. This year, it's going to be a balance: How do you respect the present reality of such extreme experiences when there are joyful things that are happening?"
Dolan, who will deliver his Christmas homilies at Catholic churches in Avon and Farmington, faces a struggle that isn't restricted to any Christian denomination — how to convey the hope and joy embodied by the season so soon after Connecticut was shocked by the worst shooting at a primary school in U.S. history.
Dolan said he is still working through his own experiences in Newtown: breaking the news to the parents; looking at photos from just the day before when the child was helping with Christmas decorations; and breaking down in tears on the car ride home.
Certainly, Dolan said, there is suffering in the world every Christmas. But this year is different in Connecticut because the shootings were local and families who lost loved ones are still fresh in their mourning.
At the First Church of Christ Congregational in West Hartford, the Rev. Geordie Campbell had put off composing his sermon for Christmas well into last week. He usually starts writing a week ahead of time.
"It's difficult in that I have to wade through my own personal grief to get to the writing," Campbell said late last week. "I had to live into this week, into the cultural pain that we are in, to know what to write."
Campbell said he believes that it will be essential to refer to the horrific school killings that took the lives of 27 people — 20 children, six educators and the shooter's mother. The event has captured the attention of the world, Campbell said, "and thrown our nation right back into 9/11."
"It's so huge," Campbell said. "I will name the pain and acknowledge it. Part of the difficulty is to say how much it hurts. But I won't let it become a dominant theme."
Among some priests and ministers in the Hartford area late last week, a dominant image emerged as their Christmas message began to evolve just as they grappled with the horror of the school shootings and the despair and emptiness that followed.
Christ, they say, represented a light coming into the darkness of the world where there wasn't a lot of hope.
Matthew Laney, senior minister at the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, said the world that Christ was born into was far from rosy: The majority of the population in the Middle East was in abject poverty, and the Bible tells of King Herod's slaughtering all the infant males in an attempt to kill Jesus.
"The Christmas story is not all sweetness, comfort and joy," Laney said. "Just beyond the shelter of the nativity, the sacred moment of Christ's birth, there is heartbreak, cruelty and even the brutal murder of young innocent lives. Those things are part of the Christmas story because they are parts of the world God came to redeem."
Laney said that he doesn't prepare his Christmas sermon far in advance "because the world changes so quickly." He had mulled possibly reflecting on Mary, the mother of Christ: what her life was like, the challenges she faced and the surprising nature of Christ's birth.
After the shootings, Laney said he changed course and began thinking more about the light and darkness imagery.
"Christmas is the story of divine light shining in the darkest places in our world," Laney said. "It's about a call to be a light bearer, and that requires grace, grit and resolve that even the darkness might occasionally overwhelm us, it will never overwhelm the light."
In Newtown, Pastor Rob Morris at Christ the King Lutheran Church, who presided over two funerals, has also been thinking a lot about darkness and light for his sermons, he said after the Sunday morning service. His wife, Christy, made the point that it is always the darkest nights that have the brightest stars.
"And it was in the darkest night when Christ's star appeared," Morris said.
That theme will be part of his Christmas Eve sermon and perhaps Christmas as well. And the church will give star ornaments to its children, he said.
Dolan said he already has had to preach three times since the shootings in Newtown. Each time he's sat down at his computer to write, he's cried.
He knows that those attending church on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day will expect to hear some words to make sense of what has happened.
"Here's a group of people," Dolan said. "They are coming with a deeper hunger and trying to understand."