EASTER REFLECTION:
BORN IN THE GRAVE

APRIL 4, 1999
R.M. FEWKES

One of my favorite readings about the meaning of Easter comes from the writings of the Universalist minister, Clinton Lee Scott:

"Jesus is risen from the dead. The centuries have not been able to bury him. Forsaken by his friends, sentenced to die with thieves, his mangled body buried in a borrowed tomb, he has risen to command the hearts of millions, and to haunt our hate-filled world with the restlessness of undying hopes. The years bring him increasingly to life. The imperial forces that tried to destroy him have long ago destroyed themselves. Those who passed judgment upon him are remembered only because of him. Military might and political tyranny still stalk the earth; they too shall perish, while the majesty of the carpenter-prophet bearing his cross to the hill will remain to rebuke the ways of violence."

This Easter season we cannot help but be aware of the tragic conflict taking place in Kosovo. There we have the awful sight of Serbian militia, most of whom are Orthodox Christians, attacking and killing unarmed Muslim Albanians, looting, burning and leveling their villages, and forcing survivors enmass to leave their homeland. NATO forces have entered the conflict through bombing missions in hopes of stopping the so-called "ethnic cleansing", but have yet to see any results from their efforts. The brutalization goes on and we do not know when it will end. Still, the effort to stop it, I believe, is noble in intent and worthy of our moral support, though some may question its political wisdom.

It is no comfort to recall that it was a brutal Roman occupation of Palestine that led to the trial and execution of Jesus of Nazareth two millennia ago. But as Clinton Lee Scott reminds us we all remember Pilate and Herod and the Roman guards because of their presumed association with the execution of a healing prophet of justice and love. They have all come and gone hundreds of times over, but the message of that prophet who taught love, practiced peace, and prayed for the kingdom of heaven to come on earth, has endured throughout the ages in spite of the fact that many have sought to kill and maim in his name. They will not prevail though many may yet suffer and die.

Understandable comparisons have been made to Nazi Germany and the attempt to exterminate the Jews. Six million died in the death camps, but there were some who survived to tell the story and their story needs to be heard because through them hope and love survived. Hope and love will survive the conflict in Kosovo though we may wonder how with so much violence, hatred and bitterness being expressed.

I saw the movie, "Life Is Beautiful", last week, at my favorite theater in Hingham center. As many of you may know it was a story about an Italian Jew who did everything he could to keep his love for his wife alive and to hide and protect his son while they were in a concentration camp together. In the end his wife and son survive while he loses his life.

I am reminded of the Vienesse psychiatrist, Victor Frankl's experience following his liberation from the death camps. He and his first wife Lilly were transported to Auschwitz together (after having only been married a few months) and there they were separated. Not knowing whether his wife was dead or alive Frankl nonetheless kept her alive in his heart throughout his ordeal. Afterwards he learns that she did not survive. Then he has an uncanny encounter with a displaced Dutch laborer who kept playing with a small object in his hands. "What do you have there?" Frankl asked him. He opened his palm and revealed a tiny golden globe, the oceans painted in blue enamel, with a gold band for the equator. On it was the following inscription: "The whole world turns on love."

It was a pendant--just like one he had given Lilly on her birthday which they had celebrated together shortly before they were married. "Just like it? It could have been the very one, for when he bought it he was told there existed only two of its kind in Vienna. The laborer had procured it from an SS collection of Jewelry that came from the extermination camps--Auschwitz being the primary source." Frankl immediately bought the pendant from the man. "It was dented slightly," he said, "but the whole world still turns on love." Though she did not survive, his love for her did, and that love gave him the courage and hope to endure and carry on. I think Jesus of Nazareth had a crazy dream that the whole world turns on God's love and justice. He died for that dream, and though it has been dented many times over the millennia, we gather every year at Easter to say that in our heart of hearts we still believe the whole world turns on love.

The late Protestant theologian, Paul Tillich, tells the story of a witness in the Nuremburg war-crime trials who testified that he "had lived for a time in a grave in a Jewish grave-yard, in Wilna Poland. It was the only place he--and many others--could live, when in hiding after they had escaped the gas chamber." He reported that "in a grave nearby a young woman gave birth to a boy." An "eighty-year-old gravedigger, wrapped in a linen shroud, assisted. When the new-born child uttered his first cry, the old man prayed: 'Great God, hast Thou finally sent the Messiah to us? For who else than the Messiah Himself can be born in a grave?'"

Tillich's story brings to mind that poignant scene in the finale of "Schlinder's List" which was broadcast on television a couple of weeks ago. The scene is a Catholic cemetery by the grave of Oscar Schlinder, the German financier and industrialist, who used his power, influence and money to save 1200 Jewish men, women and children from certain death in the extermination camps. The survivors, their children, and their children's children, come to Schlinder's grave to pay their silent respect. As each one walks by he or she leaves a small stone on top of the horizontal slab marking Schindler's burial site. Soon hundreds of small stones of various sizes, shapes and colors cover nearly every inch of the marker. The last person to come by is the wife of his latter years who gently lays a flower on top of the stones. It was an especially moving scene because these were not actors, but the real living survivors of Schlinder's legacy.

It was said of Schlinder's list that "the list is life" because those whose names were on his list were given the chance of survival. Born in the grave. Who but the Messiah could be born in the grave? Each one of those lives could be said to have been born in the grave, the grave of Oscar Schlinder's life and death. He gave the gift of life to 1200 souls and risked his own life in so doing. Maybe one of them or their children will be a messiah or savior to another person or race or culture or even the world because of the courageous actions of one man. Theodore Parker once said, "Let there be a thousand, thousand christs and messiahs." We all have it within us to be a source of love and healing and wholeness to others. The whole world still turns on love if we choose to make it so, if we could but own the spirit of that ancient Nazarene and let his power of sacrificial love transform our hearts and our world.

Sometime in the days or months ahead the conflict in Kosovo will come to an end. Let our prayer be that out of the grave of death and violence a pathway to peace and reconciliation may yet be found. May the eternal source of wisdom and love help us to make it so. Amen.