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Holocaust Memorial Day and Sunday’s readings
Rather than the Normal Lectionary readings, on Sunday next you may prefer to reflect on readings in the light of Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on Saturday, 27 January. This day recalls the millions of people killed in the Holocaust, the Nazi Persecution and in later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The date was chosen because 27 January marks the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.
The theme for Holocaust Memorial Day this year is ‘The Power of Words.’ Its focus is helping people to reflect on the role words play, both to harm and to heal, to destroy and to build. Many organisations will be holding events to mark the day, ranging from simple candle-lighting ceremonies to postcard-writing activities, conferences, concerts, plays, reading events and exhibitions.
In Ireland, the National Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration will take place on Sunday 28 January from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in the Round Room in the Mansion House, Dawson Street, Dublin.
The Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration is firmly established in the national calendar and takes place in Dublin every year on the Sunday nearest to 27 January, the date of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The event cherishes the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust and recalls the millions of men, women and children and others, who were persecuted and murdered by the Nazis because of their ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, political affiliations or religious beliefs.
In the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day, Dr Barbara Warnock is speaking in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, at 1 p.m. tomorrow [23 January 2018] telling the story of Britain and the Kindertransport, which brought children to places of safety nine months after the Nazi occupation of Austria.
Anglican churches throughout the world are marking Holocaust Memorial Day. For example, the Primate of the Church in Wales, Archbishop John Davies, is encouraging churches, parishes and chaplaincies to mark Holocaust Memorial Day.
‘The Holocaust is certainly one of the most vile and shameful examples from the catalogue of events which disfigure the history of the human race,’ says Archbishop John, who is Bishop of Swansea and Brecon. ‘Commemorating both it and its victims, whilst also recognising the terrifying perversity of those human minds which enabled such an atrocity to be devised and implemented is something which I wholeheartedly support.’
The Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI) have produced a resource pack of liturgical and homiletic material for use in worship for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day, based on the theme ‘The Power of Words.’ This pack is available HERE.
Words can make a difference – both for good and evil. ‘ Anne Frank wrote in her diary on 5 April 1944: ‘I want to go on living even after my death! And that’s why I am so grateful to God for having given me this gift, which I can use to develop myself and to express all that’s in me. When I write I can shake off all my cares; my sorrow disappears; my spirits are revived.’
Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect on issues raised by the Holocaust and all genocides, and to reflect especially on the fate of European Jewry. Christians have also been among the perpetrators of genocide, as well as among the bystanders, and indeed the victims.
Holocaust Memorial Day can give us cause to remember the reality that evil is still powerful in our world. It can strengthen our resolve to protect every community from discrimination, intimidation and violence.
These reflections draw on the resource pack prepared by the Council of Christians and Jews (CCJ) and Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI), using the lectionary readings for Sunday 28 January (Fourth Sunday of Epiphany).
Deuteronomy 18: 15-20
Here we see Moses’s last words to the people of Israel, which were also intended to guide them in the future. His are words of power and hope that call the hearer to belief and a life lived according to God’s instruction.
Prophets were chosen to speak God’s words. How do we know if someone speaks for God? Is an individual promoting their own social or political agenda? These are age-old questions.
A few verses earlier (verses 10-11), the prophets of the Lord are described as the mouthpieces for God. Their proclamations are made without the common acts of divination or speaking to dead spirits. The key role of the prophet was to declare the word of God to the people.
The power of words is such that in the wake of events in Paris, Barcelona and Manchester last year, slogans like I ♥ Manchester caught the public imagination. Words have the power to make or break people in an instant. One only has to think of how words were used in the Rwandan genocide to initiate crimes against neighbours.
Prophets, as we read, are selected by God for the sake of the people (verses 15, 18). They answer to God, not to the people, so they are free to speak the truth. But note the prophets come ‘from among their own people’ (verse 18). These home-grown speakers know the ways and the hearts of their people and can connect with them. There words have power to build up or destroy. We should nurture and encourage one another to speak powerful words of peace that reflect love and hope and that challenge injustice.
But how do we know who is speaking God’s words? Prophets speak of issues that are eternal and face every generation in times of crisis and challenge. The truth of words may not be known in this life. Perhaps, this is where faith comes to the fore. We can all be led astray by words. Often the vulnerable and weak can be exploited and great evil can be perpetrated as a result. Our challenge is to listen to God and act on his words faithfully.
The fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
I Corinthians 8: 1-13
People generally feel much safer with boundaries. These may be cultural, religious or national boundaries, or rules that make for peaceful living in our homes. We know what we find ‘acceptable’ and what is forbidden. When we become adults, these boundaries are so ingrained that we often find it difficult to cross them. We feel safe with what we ‘know’ is right.
These boundaries become barriers that are difficult to cross, so difficult that we may not even attempt to breach the boundary of talking to someone from a different faith or community. Barriers can isolate and reinforce stereotypes, cutting us off from the rich diversity and endless opportunity of the world beyond ourselves.
The Apostle Paul addresses these issues in the New Testament reading. Saint Paul is addressing the Church in Corinth, living in a city that is filled with a variety of beliefs and lifestyles. As Christians, should we isolate ourselves from the world around us, or do we engage with the richly diverse world that is a melting pot of religions and cultures?
On one hand, Saint Paul agrees with the freedom of engaging with a diverse, pluralistic world. His faith is strong enough to withstand this, rooted in his knowledge that there is only one true and living God, and that Christ frees us from our fear of the world in which we live. Indeed, Christ constantly crosses boundaries and is not afraid to engage with the world around him.
Yet some of those early Christians in Corinth were crossing some boundaries, joining their friends at ritual meals in the temples of idols. For Saint Paul, this is a step too far.
What barriers should we cross, and which ones are taboo from crossing? Should we be all things to all people? How do we listen to, understand and know others, no matter who they are?
The stories of genocide are reminders of how vulnerable people were drawn into carrying out atrocities and how others died. Where do we stand when such events occur? Do we assimilate into what is going on around us and accept the status quo? Or do we engage with diversity and see the need to challenge what needs to be challenged as Christ did?
The message of Epiphany is that God is here with us, drawing us into a life that sets us free from barriers and walls. God does not want us to live in isolation or in communities that do not engage with one another. We are charged to proclaim the message of love, hope and inclusion.
Mark 1: 21-28:
Who do we see as figures of authority today? In this Gospel reading, we see how Christ is recognised for who he truly is. It is an Epiphany moment when he is not only recognised but so too is his authority in his words of power.
In the synagogue in Capernaum, ‘they were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority’ (verse 22). Christ demonstrates that his actions lived up to his words. Can we say that our words match our actions? Do we practice what we preach?
Christ’s powerful words strike to the core of our very being, as shown by the unclean spirit leaving the man. Have any words been so powerful that they have resonated in the core of our very being? Christ’s words are words of life. This is often called the witness of the Spirit where God affirms the word of Jesus.
How often have we been in the presence of someone who speaks with authority? What attributes do they have? What is the difference between those people and the dictators and perpetrators of evil, in the past and present, who demand allegiance by exploiting people’s fear? How do we as Christians respond to authorities that have and still are exterminating thousands of people?
In this Gospel passage, we are confronted with the unclean spirit that can be seen as a metaphor for the presence of evil in human history. Evil today challenges us with the same words in the text ‘What can you do?’ Christ replied: ‘Be silent and come out of him.’ We read that he is not so much meek and mild but speaks with a steely authority.
When we are confronted with evil and it stares us in the face, like those in the Holocaust and subsequent genocides, are we going to allow the evil to continue or are we going to stand and speak out with a moral authority that comes from God?
Children of the Kindertransport … Frank Meisler’s bronze sculpture at Liverpool Street Station in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The train tracks in Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Liturgical resources for Holocaust Memorial Day:
Creator God, in the silence of the beginning:
You spoke and the world awakened.
Companion God, in the chaos of life:
You spoke and lives were healed.
Redeeming God, in the opportunity of today and the hope of tomorrow:
You speak and we are here to respond.
These responses are based on the Jewish blessing on hearing bad news
Blessed are you,
Lord God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this time
To gather to learn the truth of ourselves.
We cannot always feel joy for this life
We know too much of lives that have been broken.
Give us courage when we hear tragedy, despair and death
To bless you, the one true Judge. Amen.
Living God, you speak through priest and prophet, through friend and stranger, through all of us and in every situation in which we find ourselves. Help us, O God, when we fail to hear the cry of pain or ignore the warning signs of evil. Speak through us O God so that by our words and our actions we may reflect your highest calling and do our utmost for good. Amen.
Prayers of confession:
God our Father, you called the world to live in peace and community with each other.
But we lack the courage to challenge injustice.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
God our companion, you journey with us through heartbreak and joy.
But we forget your words of peace and despair takes us.
Christ have mercy.
Christ have mercy.
God the Spirit of life, you brought the world to being.
But our actions make life fragile and breaking.
Lord have mercy.
Lord have mercy.
God, the Three in One,
you reveal yourself in our lives
and you show us how far we are from realising God’s desire for the world.
If we confess our sins, you are faithful and just and you will forgive us.
So we offer our confession to you
and pray for forgiveness and healing, in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Empty chairs in the Ghetto in Krakow … a memorial to the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The Jewish Holocaust Memorial on Platia Eleftherias near the port in Thessaloniki … in July 1942, all the men in the Jewish community aged from 18 to 45 were rounded up in this square for deportation (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
Hymns that might be appropriate for Holocaust Memorial Day include:
323, The God of Abraham praise
361, Now thank we all our God.
347, Children of Jerusalem
599, ‘Take up thy cross,’ the Saviour said
Hope against adversity … a fading rose on the fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau; behind is one of the concentration camp watchtowers and a train wagon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)