Elie Wiesel (1928-2016) authored 57 books during his lifetime, but perhaps his most notable work was his book entitled Night. Read it if you have not already. Wiesel was born in Transylvania which was annexed by Hungary in 1940 and subsequently invaded by the Nazis in 1944. Although only about 100 pages long, Night is a powerful telling of the horrors that he and his family went through in the Nazi-run concentration camps. Elie’s mother and sister were murdered in Auschwitz. Elie and his father were imprisoned in Buchenwald where Elie admits feeling ashamed and powerless as his father was beaten to death. As an imprisoned teenager, with seemingly little to live for, Elie pondered the nature of God in light of the atrocities he was experiencing. In one pivotal scene in the book, Elie describes how the Nazis were going to make an example of three Jews, one a child, by hanging them in full view of the others. Here is a quote from Night.
One day, as we returned from work, we saw three gallows, three black ravens, erected on the Appelplatz. Roll call. The SS surrounding us, machine guns aimed at us: the usual ritual. Three prisoners in chains – and, among them, the little pipel, the sad-eyed angel.
The SS seemed more preoccupied, more worried, than usual. To hang a child in front of thousands of onlookers was not a small matter. The head of the camp read the verdict. All eyes were on the child. He was pale, almost calm, but he was biting his lips as he stood in the shadow of the gallows.
This time, the Lagerkapo refused to act as executioner.
Three SS took his place.
The three condemned prisoners together stepped onto the chairs. In unison, the nooses were placed around their necks. “Long live liberty!” shouted the two men. But the boy was silent.
“Where is merciful God, where is He?” someone behind me was asking. At the signal, the three chairs were tipped over. Total silence in the camp. On the horizon, the sun was setting.
“Caps off!” screamed the Lageralteste. His voice quivered. As for the rest of us, we were weeping.
“Cover your heads!” Then came the march past the victims. The two men were no longer alive. Their tongues were hanging out, swollen and bluish. But the third rope was still moving: the child, too light, was still breathing…And so, he remained for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at him at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:
“For God’s sake, where is God?”
And from within me, I heard a voice answer:
“Where is He? This is where – hanging here from this gallow…”
Every year, for my own edification, I read a book about the Holocaust. They are always difficult reads as my mind inevitably drifts from the page with the same question, “How can human beings be so cruel to their own kind?” The atrocities of the Nazis in my parents’ time and the numerous genocides in my own generation’s time is too much to fathom. I cannot answer my own question nor can I undo history. What I can do, is educate myself about this shameful part of history and look at my own attitudes and behaviors to make sure they are not contributing to indifference, racism, and violence.
After spending a lifetime speaking out against hatred and racism, while promoting human dignity (and being rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986), it is hard to believe that Elie Wiesel considered himself an agnostic. I go back to the last line of the above quote: “Where is He? This is where—hanging here from this gallow…” Did Wiesel mean to imply that God is as dead as the boy hanging in the gallows? Or did he covertly mean that God has fully joined us even in our worst, cruelest, and most pitiful states? If the latter, then this is what we call “incarnation.” The Franciscans have always believed that God was already saving us, redeeming us long before the death and resurrection of Jesus, by simply being born of human flesh. Christmas tells us, and Holy Week reinforces in us, that our God is “all in.” The one hanging from the gallows in Buchenwald is the very one who once hanged from the Cross on Calvary. This is the one who never abandons us even, and especially, in our darkest hour. This is the one who suffers when we suffer, cries when we cry, is vulnerable when we are weak—the one who transforms death into life. We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are… (Hebrews 4:15)
From a liturgical point of view, the Church reaffirmed, at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), this abiding presence of God at every Eucharistic celebration whether it was celebrated covertly with a crust of bread under punishment of death in a concentration camp or with all the trappings of Christmas Eve Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy says that when Mass is celebrated, Christ is present equally and powerfully in four ways: 1) in the presider, who offers this sacrifice on behalf of the faithful, 2) in the blessed bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Christ, 3) in the Word proclaimed, and 4) in the assembly, for Jesus did say, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20).
Many times, in our history, we forgot this four-fold presence and focused only on the Eucharistic species, the Body and Blood aspect of Jesus’ being. This has lead to some distorted liturgical practices and scrupulosity that has not served us well nor added to a healthy notion of incarnation. Maybe, during this pandemic time, there is an invitation to “flesh” out our notion of Christ’s presence among us. Just because we cannot receive Christ in the usual manner through Communion does not, for one moment, mean Christ is absent or only partially present to us. Quite the contrary. If Christ is present to us in this four-fold manner during liturgy, how many more ways must Christ be present to us in non-liturgical ways? There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything (Colossians 3:11)
By the time you read this, I will have already met with Archbishop Vienneau concerning how we will proceed as Church in a post-pandemic world. The staff is already preparing the four churches, as well as Peoples’ Park Tower, for our gradual return to “normal.” We will keep you posted. In the meantime, let us use this time not simply as an interruption to be overcome but as an opportunity to behold the many facets of Christ’s presence among us.