28 January 2018

Auschwitz is not too far away from
any of us, in distance or in time

‘Arbeit macht frei’ … the gate at Auschwitz. This weekend marks Holocaust Memorial Day (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 28 January 2018,

The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (Holocaust Memorial Day)

11.30 a.m.: The Parish Eucharist (Holy Communion II), Holy Trinity Church, Rathkeale, Co Limerick.

Readings: Deuteronomy 18: 15-20; Psalm 111; I Corinthians 8: 1-13; Mark 1: 21-28.

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

Today many churches on these islands and throughout the Anglican Communion are marking Holocaust Memorial Day, which falls on 27 January.

Holocaust Memorial Day recalls the millions of people killed in the Holocaust, the Nazi persecutions and in later genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur. The date was chosen because 27 January marks the anniversary of the liberation by Soviet troops of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp.

In Ireland, the Holocaust commemoration takes place today [28 January, 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.] in the Mansion House, Dublin, when the speakers include President Michael D Higgins. This day recalls all who died in the Holocaust – the millions of men, women and children, persecuted and murdered by the Nazis because of their religious beliefs, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or political affiliation.

Six million European Jews as well as millions of other people were annihilated by the Nazis, including two million Romani people, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people, and 9,000 gay men.

Holocaust Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect on the issues and the challenges posed by the Holocaust and all genocides, and to reflect especially on the fate of European Jewry. It is challenging to be reminded that in the examples of genocide being recalled tonight, Christians have been among the victims, the bystanders, and the perpetrators.

Fourteen months ago [November 2016], I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and Kraków, staying in the old Jewish Quarter in Kraków. That visit included a traumatic day visiting the concentration camps in Auschwitz and Bikenau, where about 1.5 million people were annihilated by the Nazis between 1940 and 1945.

Many images from Auschwitz and Birkenau are so familiar to all of us, yet none of them prepared me for the ghastly reality of what we are capable of doing to each other in war, in the outworking of racism and religious hatred, in our demeaning of any part of humanity, in allowing political extremism to go unchallenged.

Auschwitz is not too far away from any of us, in distance or in time: at least two Irish people died there – Ettie Steinberg and her son Leon – and the Irish diplomat in Berlin then, William Warnock, refused to intervene on their behalf.

Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us that evil is still powerful in our world, that we must speak out to protect every community from discrimination, intimidation and violence.

This year, the theme for Holocaust Memorial Day is ‘The Power of Words.’ Its focus is on the role words play, to harm and to heal, to destroy and to build.

‘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 [of writing], 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.’

In our Old Testament reading (Deuteronomy 18: 15-20), we hear Moses’s last words to the people of Israel. His are words of power and hope that call those who listen to belief and to a life lived according to God’s guidance.

A few verses earlier (verses 10-11), prophets are described as the mouthpieces for God. Prophets were chosen to speak God’s words.

In those verses Moses warns the people against false religion, false gods and false worship, which included child sacrifice. Now Moses warns the people about false prophets and their false teachings and false predictions, false words.

The power of words is so great that in the wake of violence 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, to build up or to destroy. We should nurture and encourage one another to speak 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 that face every generation in times of crisis and challenge. We can all be led astray by words. The vulnerable and the weak are exploited, and great evil follows.

The challenge is to listen to God faithfully and to act on his words faithfully. The people are not to fall for just anything.

The measure of all religious law and practice must be: ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength … You shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12: 30-31; see Matthew 22: 34-40; Luke 25-28).

What is the difference between knowledge and wisdom?

I heard someone once say that knowledge is knowing tomatoes are a fruit; wisdom is not putting tomatoes in a fruit salad.

Sometimes there are people who know everything and show nothing for it.

In the New Testament reading (I Corinthians 8: 1-13), the Apostle Paul reminds us of the difference between knowledge and love, between knowing and loving.

There is a difference between knowing who God is, and loving God, just as there is a difference between knowing who someone is and loving that person. Christian life is less about knowing, and all about loving.

‘When the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught’ (Mark 1: 21) … the Old Synagogue in Kraków, built in 1407, is the oldest Jewish house of prayer in Poland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In our Gospel reading (Mark 1: 21-28), Christ shows how to teach what the love of God is about. He is confronted in two ways: he is confronted by the evil that has taken a grip of – that is in possession of – this poor, sad and demented man; and he is confronted by the religious authorities of the day, who challenge his right to preach, teach and heal.

Christ and his disciples go to Capernaum, a prosperous town on the Sea of Galilee. In the synagogue it was the practice on Saturdays for the scribes, who specialised in the interpretation and application to daily life of the law of Moses, to quote scripture and tradition.

In Capernaum, Christ preaches and teaches in the synagogue. All are astounded by his teaching, but when he puts it into practice, they are amazed. He not only teaches, but he puts it into practice, he teaches not just with knowledge, but with authority; not only can he say, but he can do.

But instead of quoting Scripture and tradition to interpret and apply the law of Moses, Christ speaks directly, confident of his authority and of his very essence.

The ‘man with an unclean spirit’ (verse 23) was, we might say, possessed, or under the influence of evil force, at one with this evil force. In Jewish terms, he is under Satan’s direction, separated from God.

Speaking through this man (verse 24), the devil asks what Christ is doing meddling in the domain of evil. He recognises who Christ is and that his coming spells the end of the power of the devil and he understands the significance of the coming Kingdom. Other wonder-workers of the day healed using ritual or magic, but Christ exorcises simply through a verbal command.

The Word is in control of the word and words – he is clearly divine – and the crowd in their own words acknowledge Christ’s ‘authority’ in word and deed.

The parallel reading in Saint Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4: 31-37) is preceded by the story of Christ preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4: 16-30), when he proclaims the foundational text for his ministry, almost like a manifesto:

‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

These are high ideals and, if put into practice, threaten social stability and the ordering of society. This threat is realised by those who hear him, and they drive him out of the synagogue.

Driven out of the synagogue, Christ has three options:

1, to allow himself to be silenced;

2, to keep on preaching in other synagogues, but to never put into practice what he says so that those who are worried have their fears allayed and realise he is no threat;

3, or to preach and to put his teachings into practice, to show that he means what he says, that his faith is reflected in his priorities, to point to what the kingdom of God is truly like.

Christ takes the third option. He brings good news to the poor, he releases this poor captive, he sees things as they are and as they ought to be, the oppressed man goes free and all are amazed.

There is a saying attributed to Saint Francis of Assisi: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words.’

Christ preaches with authority in the synagogue. But in this Gospel reading we are not told what he said. We are only told what he did. In his actions he demonstrates the love of God and the love of others that are at the heart of the Gospel.

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 the words of power he speaks

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. Christ’s words are words of life.

How often have we been in the presence of someone who speaks with true authority? 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, 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 Christ 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 that evil to continue? Or are we going to stand up and speak with a moral authority that comes from God?

The stories of genocide are reminders of how vulnerable people were drawn into carrying out atrocities and how others died.

But the message of Epiphany is that God is here with us, drawing us into a life that sets us free from captivity and evil. We must continue not only to proclaim the message of love, hope and inclusion, but to live it out in our lives, each and every day.

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

This sermon was prepared for Sunday 28 January 2018

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)

The Penitential Kyries:

God be merciful to us and bless us,
and make his face to shine on us.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

May your ways be known on earth,
your saving power to all nations.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

You, Lord, have made known your salvation,
and reveal your justice in the sight of the nations.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


Creator God,
who in the beginning
commanded the light to shine out of darkness:
We pray that the light of the glorious gospel of Christ
may dispel the darkness of ignorance and unbelief,
shine into the hearts of all your people,
and reveal the knowledge of your glory
in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Introduction to the Peace:

Our Saviour Christ is the Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there shall be no end. (Isaiah 9: 6, 7)


For Jesus Christ our Lord
who in human likeness revealed your glory,
to bring us out of darkness
into the splendour of his light:

Post Communion Prayer:

Generous Lord,
in word and Eucharist we have proclaimed
the mystery of your love.
Help us so to live out our days
that we may be signs of your wonders in the world;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.


Christ the Son be manifest to you,
that your lives may be a light to the world:

The train tracks in Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Prayers for Holocaust Memorial Day:

Opening prayers:

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.

The fence at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)


535, Judge eternal, throned in splendour
529, Thy hand, O God, has guided
323, The God of Abraham praise

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)

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