13 November 2016

‘This is my commandment, that you
love one another as I have loved you’

Restored graves in Remuh Cemetery in Kraków, where the smashed gravestones in the background form a Holocaust Memorial (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford,

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 13 November 2016,

The Second Sunday before Advent (Remembrance Sunday),

11 a.m., The Cathedral Eucharist and Act of Remembrance.

Isaiah 2: 1-5; Psalm 98; Romans 8: 31-39; John 15: 9-17.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Earlier this week, I stood before the gates of Auschwitz and stood under those horrific and cynical words: Arbeit macht frei, ‘Work will make you free.’

This slogan, over the gates of so many concentration camps, is in sharp contrast with the words of Jesus: ‘If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free’ (John 8: 31-32).

The only work in Auschwitz for the prisoners was slave labour, demeaning work that sought to dehumanise them long before they went to their sure and certain death.

I stood on the railway line in Birkenau, where 1.5 million people were forcibly moved across Europe to death in this place in the very heart of Europe, close to the points where Germany, Austria, Poland, Ukraine and the former Czechoslovakia meet.

These were crimes on a gross scale that I find still impossible to calculate. In this place, 1.5 million deaths over a five-year period, 300,000 deaths a year, 25,000 deaths a month, almost 1,000 deaths a day.

So true are those words in the Psalms quoted by Saint Paul in our New Testament reading, ‘we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered’ (Romans 8: 36; see Psalm 44: 22).

They thought so little of these people that their ashes were scattered on the ground as fertiliser, their bones were used to make soap, their hair – shaven off beforehand to add to their humiliation – was used to insulate the coats and uniforms of soldiers fighting in the frost on the eastern front.

When they were stripped naked, the clothes of the camp internees were sorted and stacked, sent to clothe people in Germany.

Row after row of exhibits shows pile upon pile of stolen spectacles or glasses, serried suitcases, mounds of shoes, and the shorn locks of once dignified and loved people.

There was no mercy, anywhere, at any time. Not for the old, not for the tiny infant who became the object of cruel medical and scientific experiments, the pregnant mother whose child is snatched at birth, the old, the aged and the ailing.

I came across the story of at least two Irish citizens who died in Auschwitz – Ettie Steinberg, who was brought up in the 1920s and the 1930s in a small house at 28 Raymond Terrace, in ‘Little Jerusalem’ off the South Circular Road in Dublin, and her son Leon Gluck.

We need be under no illusion that this would not have happened in Ireland. One display lists the number of Irish Jews, living in Ireland, who were on the list for extermination.

Back in Kraków, where I was staying for the week, I wandered in dismay and shock through the narrow cobbled streets and squares of the Old Jewish Quarter in Kazimierz.

Before World War II, the Jewish population was about 25 per cent of the population of Kraków, and the families who lived there had lived there for generations and for centuries. In the early 1930s, how could they have imagined that the Holocaust was looming? Who would have worried about the democratic choices being made in neighbouring Germany?

I visited seven synagogues in Kazimierz over the past few days, a ritual bath house, a number of Jewish restaurants, bookshops, listened to traditional Jewish music, visited museums and exhibits, and stopped in two Jewish cemeteries.

For centuries, these cemeteries have been the place of burial for rabbis, doctors, editors, philosophers, poets, composers, musicians, and everyday, ordinary everyday people from Kraków.

But the Holocaust was not going to stop with death and murder. Its intention was annihilation. Even the gravestones were smashed and razed to the ground. The dead were to be annihilated too.

Since 1993, there has been a new interest in this district, thanks to a popularity created by Steven Spielberg’s movie, Schindler’s List.

Old buildings have been restored, restaurants have reopened, museums and shops have come back to life.

But we cannot bring back to life six million people wiped out in the Holocaust – Jews, Romas, Gays, conscientious objectors … hatred compiles an endless list.

And even the memory of the people who died is difficult to recover.

An exhibition in the High Synagogue shows photographs of happy, middle class families in Kraków in the 1920s and 1930s. Children playing with their grandparents, toy planes, horses, skiing … life must have held out so much promise, so many promises.

A young couple on their wedding day … she has long tresses – did her hair end up in that tangled mass in Auschwitz, destined for soldiers’ trench coats and mattresses in apartments in Munich or Berlin?

A sign outside the Jarden Bookshop has photographs and names from the Schwarzer family asking, over 70 years later, asking whether anyone has any memories or can help to trace missing family members.

War and the passing of time cannot destroy love and hope. Who can separate us from real love (see Romans 8: 35)?

In the Old Cemetery behind the Remu'h Synagogue, work continues on restoring some of the gravestones smashed in hatred and in an attempt to wipe out any focus for memory.

Some graves have been restored. Other gravestones, or smashed pieces from them, have been used to form a random jig-saw-like memorial on one long wall, now known as the ‘Wailing Wall.’

In the New Cemetery, behind the street where I was staying, shattered gravestones have been assembled in a mound to make a memorial to the Holocaust.

But there are new burials too in recent years. In a surprising way, death reminds us that life goes on.

Love and hope against adversity and death … a fading rose on the fence at Birkenau; behind is one of the watchtowers and a train wagon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

What was it all for?

The thousand-year Reich lasted for little more than a decade. But we must never forget what happened.

Or have we forgotten already?

We live in a world where refugees are categorised by ethnicity and religion; where those who flee violence and war can be rejected because of their religion; where civilians once again are the innocent victims of war and violence; where children are separated from their parents in the long journey and quest for freedom; where war is a way of testing and trying out new and more cruel weapons.

But there is hope – where there is love there is always hope.

The new Jerusalem in the vision of the Prophet Isaiah is in sharp contrast to the greater Germany Hitler wanted to build, or the greater anywhere that politicians offer as a false paradise to tease and fool the voters they use.

And when all goes wrong, can we still stand in love and hope before the Lord? Can we sing, with Leonard Cohen:

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

The slaughter of the innocents must never be forgotten, for God’s love is greater than any ‘hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword’ (Romans 8: 35).

We must remember, not to be depressed and fatalistic, but remember so that it never happens again.

And the best way to work towards that is simple. ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15: 12).

It is quite simple. There is no other hope. This is at the heart of all the advice, all the wisdom, all the teaching, all the commandments. ‘I am giving you these commandments so that you may love one another’ (John 15: 17).

There are no ifs, there are no buts … oh but they’re Jews, they’re Syrians, they’re immigrants, they’re not my family. Excuses line the train tracks to Auschwitz.

There is only one commandment: ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you’ (John 15: 12).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

The ‘Gates of Hell’ … the entrance to Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

John 15: 9-17

9 καθὼς ἠγάπησέν με ὁ πατήρ, κἀγὼ ὑμᾶς ἠγάπησα: μείνατε ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ τῇ ἐμῇ. 10 ἐὰν τὰς ἐντολάς μου τηρήσητε, μενεῖτε ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ μου, καθὼς ἐγὼ τὰς ἐντολὰς τοῦ πατρός μου τετήρηκα καὶ μένω αὐτοῦ ἐν τῇ ἀγάπῃ. 11 Ταῦτα λελάληκα ὑμῖν ἵνα ἡ χαρὰ ἡ ἐμὴ ἐν ὑμῖν ᾖ καὶ ἡ χαρὰ ὑμῶν πληρωθῇ.

12 αὕτη ἐστὶν ἡ ἐντολὴ ἡ ἐμή, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους καθὼς ἠγάπησα ὑμᾶς: 13 μείζονα ταύτης ἀγάπην οὐδεὶς ἔχει, ἵνα τις τὴν ψυχὴν αὐτοῦ θῇ ὑπὲρ τῶν φίλων αὐτοῦ. 14 ὑμεῖς φίλοι μού ἐστε ἐὰν ποιῆτε ἃ ἐγὼ ἐντέλλομαι ὑμῖν. 15 οὐκέτι λέγω ὑμᾶς δούλους, ὅτι ὁ δοῦλος οὐκ οἶδεν τί ποιεῖ αὐτοῦ ὁ κύριος: ὑμᾶς δὲ εἴρηκα φίλους, ὅτι πάντα ἃ ἤκουσα παρὰ τοῦ πατρός μου ἐγνώρισα ὑμῖν. 16 οὐχ ὑμεῖς με ἐξελέξασθε, ἀλλ' ἐγὼ ἐξελεξάμην ὑμᾶς καὶ ἔθηκα ὑμᾶς ἵνα ὑμεῖς ὑπάγητε καὶ καρπὸν φέρητε καὶ ὁ καρπὸς ὑμῶν μένῃ, ἵνα ὅ τι ἂν αἰτήσητε τὸν πατέρα ἐν τῷ ὀνόματί μου δῷ ὑμῖν. 17 ταῦτα ἐντέλλομαι ὑμῖν, ἵνα ἀγαπᾶτε ἀλλήλους.

John 15: 9-17 (NRSV)

9 As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

The Collect:

Almighty Father,
whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son,
the king of all:
Govern the hearts and minds of those in authority,
and bring the families of the nations,
divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin,
to be subject to his just and gentle rule;
who is alive and reigns with you and the
Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of peace,
whose Son Jesus Christ proclaimed the kingdom
and restored the broken to wholeness of life:
Look with compassion on the anguish of the world,
and by your healing power
make whole both people and nations;
through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Cathedral Eucharist and Act of Remembrance in Christ Church Cathedral on Remembrance Sunday, 13 November 2016.

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