It was a day into Epiphany — the Christian season of light, when Jesus is revealed in many and various ways as God — when I began my J-term class on World War II. So I started out with a meditation on Isaiah 60:1-2, one of the staple texts of the season. But rather than focusing on the familiar inspiration of “Arise, shine,” I issued a different challenge to my students: to not look so hard for light (lest they aim at false beacons), and instead to welcome it as it flickered to life and meanwhile strive to understand the “thick darkness” (v 2) that engulfed most of the people who experienced WWII.
That challenge came to mind yesterday, when we took a field trip from our classroom to Bethel’s Great Hall, where a remarkable woman named Dora Zaidenweber (ninety years old tomorrow) shared her story of the Holocaust. (Part of a series of Holocaust-related events at Bethel this month and next.) A survivor of Auschwitz (where three million perished), the forced march away from it as the Red Army advanced, and a final horrible stay at Bergen-Belsen, Dora spent years transliterating and translating an Auschwitz memoir written in Yiddish by her father, Isaia Eiger. The title of the book, Sky Tinged Red, comes from an anguished poem he wrote during his stay in that death camp:
Don’t you see the fire and smoke, the clouds and sky, tinged red?
But it also evokes the image of a rising (or setting) sun, which during Q&A inspired one of our students to mention that he’d visited Auschwitz and seen the sun rise. He asked Dora if seeing that sight in that place had caused her to wonder how a loving God could permit such evil in his beautiful creation.
I was both proud of the student for wanting to ask such a prototypically Bethel kind of question, and entirely unsurprised when Dora completely ignored its theological premises. Instead, she explained that she had dreaded the rise of the sun, since the light would reveal the dead bodies around her. Literal darkness helped her cope with the figurative darkness all about.
I took it as another reminder that we Christians perhaps look too quickly for light. Perhaps because we’re too uncomfortable taking a close look at “thick darkness.”
* * * * *
The day before, I had opened class with another passage from Isaiah:
Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;
yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all. (Isa 53:4-6, NRSV)
It’s a central mystery within Christianity: that violence can be redemptive. Indeed, we’ve done such violence to our relationship with God, each other, and the rest of Creation that only the most unspeakable act of violence — the murder of God the Son — can redeem that iniquity. Stripped of overt religiosity, such themes resonate in popular American depictions of WWII. I later showed the still-gripping Omaha Beach scene from the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, which tells the story of an entire unit of men sacrificing themselves for the sake of a stranger, dying brutally that he might live. “Earn this,” breathes Tom Hanks’ dying hero to Matt Damon’s titular G.I.
But here, too, I suggested that we Christians are too quick to look for light and pass over the darkness: we want to get to redemption without lingering to understand the price paid by the redeemer. So it’s well that the daily lectionary places one of the “suffering servant” prophecies smack-dab in the middle of Epiphany, forcing us to remember that “By his bruises we are healed” consists of two three-word phrases.
So hammer home the point, I talked about how the dying Christ was employed by the poets of the war, desperate for a metaphor grotesquely powerful enough to convey the unimaginable suffering they witnessed. We read parts of David Gascoyne’s “Ecce Homo” (published in 1942), in which his Surrealism fused with a growing interest in Catholic mysticism: (I’ve previously written about this poem in a post asking why so little WWII poetry is remembered)
Whose is this horrifying face,
This putrid flesh, discoloured, flayed,
Fed on by flies, scorched by the sun?
Whose are these hollow red-filmed eyes
And thorn-spiked head and spear-stuck side?
Behold the Man: He is Man’s Son.
It’s significant that Gascoyne narrates in the present tense, since he quickly reveals the “great scandal” of the murder of the Son of God:
He is in agony till the world’s end,
And we must never sleep during that time!
He is suspended on the cross-tree now
And we are onlookers at the crime,
Callous contemporaries of the slow
Torture of God.
Christian imagination often takes historical events like Incarnation and Resurrection and extends them from past into present and future — treating them not only as finite moments, but processes shaping us still. Gascoyne suggests that the same is true of Crucifixion: “He who wept for Jerusalem / Now sees His prophecy extend / Across the greatest cities of the world…”
If true, Christians should approach history not only with an eye to how God is redeeming and restoring the world, but in such a way that we can be wounded by the continuing reality of sin and evil. We should stumble through the “thick darkness” of the past, shining a light on the infirmities, diseases, transgressions, and iniquities that strike down and afflict our Redeemer.