Just a few weeks ago, we marked the fiftieth anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination, a grim reminder of a dark moment in history. For those old enough to participate, it propelled us into a fresh round of “Where were you when it happened?” I remember that afternoon clearly. I was in fifth grade at Immaculate Conception School in Memphis. Sister Evelyn, our principal, came into the classroom on a Friday afternoon and told us that she had some tragic news. I knew this was going to be a big deal because normally all announcements came over the intercom. At the age of ten I was too young to have much historical perspective on this. My family had been without a television set for over a year; and the night before the assassination my parents had gone out and bought a TV. Now for four straight days there was nothing to watch on any of the four channels but funeral coverage! However, I do remember how shocked the adults were that such a thing could happen and how most people stayed glued to their television sets for the whole melancholy weekend. A president had not been assassinated in 60 years. Our country had not had a big “where were you?” moment since the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Unfortunately we would not have to wait that long for another one.
Just before dinner on a March evening in 1968, a police helicopter swooped very near our house. I ran to the TV to find out what was going on, and I learned that only a few miles away, Dr. Martin Luther King had been shot. The next “Where were you?” moment came quickly. When Robert Kennedy was killed four months later, I was in the midst of my summer project of painting the house. I had gotten up early to try to beat the heat, and I heard the breaking news on the radio. The next big death I remember was Elvis’s. By that time I had finished college (at least for the first time) and was working in a college library in St. Louis. An electrician working in the building, knowing that I was from Memphis, came into the library and told me. Elvis’s death, of course, did not so much change history as change people’s self-perceptions. Elvis had essentially died of old age in his early forties. Long time fans of The King and others in their early forties had to face the fact that they were not so young anymore, and certainly not invincible. Someone wrote a book soon afterwards entitled, Elvis Is Dead And I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.
Most of us reading this column can remember where we were on 9/11. That was twelve years ago, though; and that means that those now in high school have never known our country when it was not obsessed with security. Yes, we worried in the fifties and sixties about security; but that was different. We were worried about a nuclear bomb, not the guy sitting next to us on an airplane. Anyway, it was a haunting time for me. When the news broke, I had just finished Mass in our parish in St. Louis and on my way over to the school where I taught two religion classes on Tuesdays. Our principal decided not to alarm the kids right away—at least not until we knew that St. Louis was safe. So, I spent a very weird ninety minutes in the classroom trying to act as if nothing was wrong and wondering how much of my country would be left.
These “where were you?” moments change us, and that is why we remember them so clearly. But for people of faith, the really important question is, “Where am I now?” How have these historic moments led me to greater faith in God, a greater focus on His promises, and a greater desire to make the world a safer and a better place? This season of Advent, we are told, is about waiting. However, we can easily lose the full meaning of Advent, when we reduce it to waiting for Christmas. The events of that first Christmas took place in an out of the way place in an out of the way town. Not a lot of people were left with “Where were you?” stories. The point of Advent is that we do not want to miss Christ when He comes again at the end of time or as He comes to us in the everyday events of life—history making or otherwise. Hence, we make sure that our lives do not become too full and bloated with the things of this world, so that there is no room left in our hearts for Christ. If “Where were you?” moments teach us anything is that we cannot find our security in our leaders and our institutions. Our security has to be anchored in something beyond this world.