Saturday, March 9, 2013


Our current table reading book at supper in the monastery is a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Mataxis). Most of my brothers seem as surprised as I am at how much we did not know about this remarkable man whose books we may have read back in the 1970’s. We are in the chapter where Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran minister, church leader and respected theologian, has deliberately returned from the safety of a professorship in New York to join his brethren in the dark uncertainty of Nazi Germany where Hitler was persecuting the church and growing more bold and diabolical every day. Hitler had just fabricated a fake plot of the Polish Army against Germany and used it as a pretext to invade Poland, and England had declared war against the Reich. Inside Germany Jews were being persecuted more and more seriously. Yet Bonhoeffer could not bear to be away from his colleagues in the Church during this terrible time, and so changed his plans and returned to his homeland.
One of the things that strike me about Bonhoeffer is his deep spirituality, based on constant daily reflection on Sacred Scripture. For him, theology that did not result in a conversion of heart was an empty exercise. The rise of Hitler forced him to rely ever more deeply on Scripture for strength and guidance. He is a remarkable Christian.

Last night, right after Friday night supper during which we had listened to more of the terrible ordeal of Germany under Hitler, I went into church to pray the Stations of the Cross before Vespers. I stood before the first station, in which Pontius Pilate condemns Jesus to death. Immediately I saw that station in a way I never had before: Here was this Roman governor, representative of the military occupying force in Israel, arbitrarily calling for the execution of a man he knew was perfectly innocent. The life of this Jesus was of no importance to Pilate at all, and since it was more politically expedient to have him executed (=murdered) he did so. It sounded so much like the cynical Hitler, but also like any of the countless dictators around the world who rule by force and fear, and for whom there is nothing beyond naked power for its own sake. It got discouraging pretty fast, so I moved on to the second station, in which Jesus takes up his cross.  I found myself getting swept up in the forward movement toward Calvary as Jesus, with the cross on his shoulder, began the via dolorosa. As we walked along he encountered his mother who was weeping like all the mothers in the world who have seen their sons die at the hand of an unjust government. We met Simon of Cyrene, who took on himself some of the weight of the cross the way so many good people have done for their suffering sisters and brothers over the centuries. We met the weeping women whom Jesus realizes have not seen the worst yet and who will live to see the destruction of Jerusalem itself. Then there was Veronica who compassionately wipes Jesus’ sacred face with her veil and is rewarded by having his image imprinted there; I reflected that the closer I am to Christ and his paschal mystery, the more chance there is that people will see Christ’s image imprinted on me.
Then we met the Roman soldiers, from all over the empire, who were just carrying out one more Friday afternoon detail they’d been assigned. They knew the routine by heart: Strip the person, lay him flat on the ground, nail his hands to a crossbeam, hoist him up and fit the crossbeam into the slot on the upright post that remained permanently in place. Nail the feet, secure the criminal with ropes around the arms and abdomen to prevent him from tearing free of the nails, and then sit back and watch. They seemed quite bored with the whole thing. I thought of the thousands of men around the world who mindlessly go about their assigned tasks of torturing, mistreating and killing their fellow human beings as part of their daily routine. At the thirteenth station I saw Mary, the Pieta, holding her dead son in her arms, and thought of how many bereaved mothers never get the chance to even do that because their sons were killed in war or were kidnapped or arrested and never heard from again.

It was a grim exercise. Then I got to the fourteenth station in which Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb. At that point a glimmer of light began to shine in the darkness: This is the tomb that is going to lie empty on Easter morning. I thought of a passage from the final chapter of my book of  Lenten reflections:

I hear the deafening blast of a trumpet; before my eyes every grave that ever was bursts open in an instant, in the twinkling of an eye. Every unmarked trench on every battlefield on earth suddenly lies open and empty in the bright sunshine. Every little child's grave, every ditch ever dug in a pauper's field now lies open and empty in the bright sunshine.  Every tomb, every burial mound, every mausoleum, suddenly lies open and empty in the bright sunshine. I see the graves of my mother and father, of my sister and brother and of all my relatives, all suddenly lying open and empty in the bright sunshine. And, best of all, I can see my own grave in St. Mary's Cemetery suddenly lying open and empty in the bright sunshine…

Easter this year will seem more triumphant thanks to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and this terrible Friday night walk with Jesus to Calvary and the tomb.

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