1 John 5:1-6

Bravely Leave Open That Tragic Gap

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1 John 5:1-6

Bravely Leave Open That Tragic Gap

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker

Over the last several months, I have been remembering my grandmother, Anna Albertina Hoffacker. She was a presence in my life when I was growing up, until her death when she was eighty and I was eleven.

It was not until I was much older that I recognized one of the roles life had forced upon her: she was a bereaved mother. Anna had two children. One was my father, and the other was my Uncle Paul. Paul died long before I was born. It was something unexpected, sudden, perhaps an aneurism.

He was in his twenties when he died, engaged to be married, skillful in wood working, and active as an adult leader in the Boy Scouts of America. From an early age, I knew this thumbnail sketch of my long-dead uncle, but I did not fully recognize until decades later one of the roles life had forced upon Anna Hoffacker: that of a bereaved mother, a woman who had buried her child.

I have been remembering my grandmother over the past several months, and perhaps it is because in this community and this parish there are many of you who have buried a child. There are many bereaved parents among us. That deserves to be recognized, even here on Mother’s Day.

The origins of the American Mother’s Day go back to efforts by Anna Jarvis of West Virginia to honor her own mother, Ann Reeves Jarvis, who cared for wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. West Virginia was the first state to recognize the holiday, and in 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation establishing Mother’s Day as a national holiday.

A related development was the  “Appeal to womanhood throughout the world” issued by Julia Ward Howe in 1870 as a reaction to the carnage of both the American Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War then raging in Europe. Howe worked unsuccessfully for the establishment of a Mother’s Day of Peace to be observed annually on June 2.

Thus the history of Mother’s Day addresses more than the birth and nurture of children. It also confronts the deaths of people in warfare, each of them a mother’s child. The roots of this holiday are not in some ideal realm, but in the war-scarred world of previous generations, including the Civil War veterans buried in the cemeteries of this parish, each one some mother’s child.

But what about the world we live in?

Mother’s Day is a time for memories. Allow me to offer you two more of my own.

• Many years ago, I was connected with a parish in a large Midwestern city. As I left the parish hall on my final Sunday there, I saw a young mother, a member of the parish, sitting with her newborn baby boy surrounded by several parishioners.

Twenty years passed, and I returned one Sunday morning to that same parish. I remembered that baby boy and wondered about what he was doing as a young man.

Members of the parish told me that he had been killed by gunfire a short time before. He wasn’t a gang member; he wasn’t a criminal. Some of his friends were boys in trouble, and one day he found himself in the path of a bullet.

Now, when the topic turns to gun violence prevention, his brief life and violent death are what come to my mind first. Sorry, but I do not remember his name. But this I know: he was his mother’s child.

• Now another memory, a more recent one. Immediately before I came here, I lived on Capitol Hill, within walking distance of the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, which commemorates more than 20,000 officers who died in the line of duty.

I recall stopping there late one afternoon and studying the names on display. Names from every state and territory, every city and town, appear in that small park guarded by four sculptures of lions. All the officers listed died in the line of duty, many as the result of human violence directed against them. For me it was a reminder that it’s tough serving in law enforcement, tough when a member of your family or a friend is a police officer. Each one of the people listed on that memorial was some mother’s child.

Now let’s move from the past to the present. People in Baltimore are cleaning up where buildings were burnt, businesses destroyed, and mutual respect was vandalized. There are no quick solutions, no easy answers.

Elijah Cummings, a member of Congress from Baltimore since 1996, said in response to last month’s riots that the relationship between law enforcement and ordinary citizens is “the civil rights cause of this generation.”

Representative Cummings was not only talking about Maryland’s largest city, but our entire nation. There’s plenty of work to be done by people of good will.

I want to express my appreciation to all who are undertaking that work. Among them are leaders in this county who are improving our life together through a return to community policing. As defined by the United States Department of Justice, a key component of community policing is “Collaborative partnerships between the law enforcement agency and the individuals and organizations they serve to develop solutions to problems and increase trust in police.”

Along with many other challenges our society faces, the relationship between law enforcement and ordinary citizens will get better only as we look for solutions inside the circle defined by a simple belief: that everyone, without exception, is somebody’s child, that as a community we care about the children of all mothers, whatever their circumstances.

Scripture speaks this truth in its own terms. The Constitution speaks this truth in its own terms. But the language of Mother’s Day has its contribution to make as well. Whoever we are, each of us is some mother’s child.

Only within the gracious circle marked out by this belief can we resolve the problems that beset us as a nation. Inside that circle is where each of us must labor to promote the common good as we have opportunity.

Yet often that gracious circle is a zone full of grief. It contains the grief of many mothers, whose children are as diverse as humanity.

Can a zone of grief become sacred space where God fills the tragic gap with something new and totally unexpected?
(That precisely this can happen is asserted by Richard Rohr in Yes, and: Daily Meditations (Franciscan Media, 2013), 346.)

It’s the hope that God will do so that bring people here and to countless other churches on this Sixth Sunday of Easter.


At the heart of Christianity, at the heart of reality, there stands a grieving mother who sees her child murdered.

On my desk is a small icon that bears witness to this truth. Mary is shown, her hands folded in front of her, with seven sharp swords visible, all of them pointed at her heart.

This woman’s many sorrows culminate with her watching the death of her child on a cross. Yet this grief, though sharper than any sword, was not the end of her story.

And grief is not the end of ours.

The zone of grief becomes sacred space where God fills the tragic gap with something new and totally unexpected.

This can happen for grieving mothers. For all of us who mourn. For our nation that sometimes steps forward with courage and sometimes stumbles backward in fear.

Solutions to problems are essential, yet they are uncertain, they are secondary. We need something else as well.

Above all, we must leave open the zone of our common shared grief.

We must bravely leave open that tragic gap, believing that mourners shall be comforted.

We must bravely leave open that tragic gap, not denying or dismissing the opportunity that is ours.

We must bravely leave ourselves open, because when we do this, then the zone of grief will turn into sacred space.

God will come and fill that space with something new and totally unexpected.

God will come and fill us. The divine Spirit will work through our confusion and struggle to claim our barren existence, our broken world, as a new and sacred landscape where life and peace prevail.

Copyright 2015, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.