My God, my God...
‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, my God, why have you deserted me?’
Tertullian, writing in the 2nd Century, says that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the Church. And, since he was there at the time, I guess we have to take his word for it.
One thing that only occurred to me recently: martyrs are only canonized with hindsight, and usually a few hundred years after the event. In any culture, at any time, there are only a very few people with the integrity and foresight to stand back from the cultural expectations of their own time and place - the things that ‘everyone knows’ and commit their lives to eternal values.
The thought will be familiar to anyone who has seen Schindler’s List. With the benefit of sixty years of hindsight, it now seems so obvious that the great people who witnessed the most to eternal human values were those - of whatever religious tradition - who risked their lives to rescue Jewish people from annihilation by National Socialism.
Some of their names have gained heroic status, Raul Wallenberg - a Swedish visa official who bent the rules to save thousands; Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty – a Papal diplomat who, in the finest traditions of the service, saved 25,000 of the Jews of Rome and Monsignor Giuseppe Roncalli (the future Pope John XXIII) who interceded successfully with Bulgarian and Romanian authorities to save the Jewish people in those countries; and Oskar Schindler a small and unsuccessful Austrian businessman whose businesses never made money either before or after the war, but who did something rather more important during it.
With hindsight, the bitter shame of every European is that there were so few. Many millions of people were prepared to fight, kill and even die for their respective nations, but so few were prepared to live and strive for their common humanity.
The film tells the story of one of them - Oskar Schindler. It is shot almost entirely in black and white because, as its director, Stephen Spielberg says, that is the colour of hindsight. Schindler is not everyone’s kind of hero and his immense moral stature is not always obvious to his contemporaries. He is one of the most lapsed Catholics imaginable - alcoholic, philandering, corrupt; faithless in marriage, friendship and business. His methods of business are flattery, fraud and bribery. Only in wartime can such a man thrive.
Only in wartime can such a man be a hero.
Only in wartime can such a man be a beacon of goodness and hope.
Because, in a way that is obvious to the audience - with 20/20 hindsight - but virtually never appreciated by his contemporaries, Schindler is saving the lives of several thousand Jews by hiding them in plain view in his factories. As one of them tells him, ‘To save a life is to save the world entire.’
At the end of the film, Schindler, in a rare (and almost certainly unhistoric) moment of introspection and self-doubt, enquires of himself if he could have done more and believes with agony that he probably could. The audience is moved to ask if others could not also have done much more.
But Spielberg is not asking us to reach moral judgements about events sixty years ago. His question is which of us is able in our own time and place to stand outside of our own narrow cultural preoccupations - the things that ‘everyone now knows’ - to witness to ultimate and enduring human values? He’s obviously not expecting many takers; martyrdom has never been popular except in hindsight. But that kind of moral courage is no less required now than at any other time in Christian history.
Today, as we reflect on Christ’s passion, let us remember all those people who are today taking risks for Christ – the Lord Jesus - who rode on a donkey into Jerusalem, knowing that He was going to His death – death on a Cross.
Let us profess our Faith in God for whom we shall take those risks.
Paul O'Reilly SJ