Sermon for Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

The Revd Canon Chris Newlands, Vicar of Lancaster, Lancaster Priory 27th January 2019

Holocaust Memorial Day 2019

21 years ago, I was Vicar of Shrub End in Colchester. Not the main parish, a bit out of the centre, somewhat like Scotforth here in Lancaster. A healthy mixture of urban and rural, estates and developments, with a lively group of parishioners, many of whom are still good friends, especially those who now live in Dubai or far flung places – where we can visit (!) and catch up with people without reflecting on the new Vicar and all he is doing (or not!). But those memories are still very fresh, of all we were able to do and achieve in the 8 years I was Vicar there.

That was 21 years ago, back in 1998. I wonder what you were doing then? I’m sure you can all remember where you lived, the house you were living in, what you were doing for a living – apart, perhaps from some of our choir today, who may have been but twinkles in someone’s eye back then.

They say a year is a long time in politics (and hasn’t that been proved to be true recently?) but in the grand scheme of things, 21 years – not a long time really, is it?

So back in 1939 – it wasn’t too much of a challenge for people – all over the world – to cast their minds back just 21 years to remember 1918 and the horrendous impact which that First World War had made on all the countries of Europe and far beyond. Any yet, even with the knowledge of the devastation and the catastrophic loss of life which resulted, Europe still exploded into another even bloodier conflict for the following six years. The First World War had seen 19 million people dead as a result of war, genocide, and acts of unimaginable brutality.

The Second World War began just 21 years after the Armistice whose centenary we celebrated last November was signed. So with grim realization, we keep this year the 80th anniversary of the start of WW2. Yet another conflict to remember. I’m told that people are feeling some “anniversary fatigue” after remembering all the anniversaries of the Great War. Nevertheless we try to instil in people to need to remember and learn the lessons from history. We all know the saying – if we fail to learn the mistakes of history, we are doomed to repeat them.

And what about the casualties of the Second Great War? 21 million – and that was just within the population of the Soviet Union. Across the world, up to 85 million people perished. That was one third of the world’s population at the time. That’s an extraordinary statistic, is it not?

And people still ask, “Why do we study history? Why do we keep Holocaust Memorial Day?”

Holocaust Memorial Day falls this very Day, 27th January. It marks the day, 74 years ago, in 1945 when Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi death camp of the Holocaust was liberated by the Soviet army. It calls us to remember the 6 million Jewish men, women, and children murdered by that regime and its collaborators during that period, and the millions of others – Roma, Trade Unionists, political dissidents, lesbians and gay men, people of faith, disabled people – all of whose potential for creation, invention, genius and beauty was snuffed out by a tyranny of evil. We remember, too, other genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur when evil has extinguished life and hope for so many people.

I am reminded of a great quote from Jonathan Larsen’s musical “Rent” in which a character says, “The opposite of war isn’t peace – it’s creation!” There is great truth in that: war destroys life and growth, and is indeed the very opposite of the creative power that is at work in the world – a power which began when the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep and God’s great work began and earth was created from a formless void. That divine power is still at work in the world through God’s creative spirit giving the divine gift of ongoing creation, new life, new hope coming in to existence.

So, I believe it is most fitting that we come together in different ways to keep this Holocaust Memorial Day. We gathered on Thursday in the Town Hall Memorial Garden to light candles of remembrance, and today in this sacred space we gather once again, and here we invite people of faith, each in their own tradition, their own way, to pray for peace, the integrity of God’s creation, and the future of our one race – the human race, that we may learn to live in peace and concord with one another.

Sacred space is important to us – places set apart to remember; in the words of T S Eliot, “where prayer has been valid” and where people come to meet in what is often called “a thin place” where earth and heaven come so close that their proximity is palpable.

In the hustle and bustle of the City of London, St Paul’s Cathedral strives to be one such place. It occupies a unique place in the hearts and minds of Londoners by birth and adoption and aspiration. It is a place where mathematics and music meet in a harmonic synthesis of marble and mosaic, wood and architecture. The vast space of its dome inspires awe in all who stand beneath it. It draws the gaze of a visitor upwards to its decoration – and beyond it towards the God whose creative power continues to inspire architects and others to work alongside the beauty of creation in nature to design a habitation where God’s Holy Spirit may dwell, and to which people may go to find inspiration.

But the work of St Paul’s did not stop when Christopher Wren laid down his pen for the last time: the current custodians of that building still strive to make statements which are relevant to our present generation which looks not at the memorials to the Duke of Wellington or Admiral Nelson, – impressive though the are – but to an art which has the power to speak directly to people in a way which can change them for the better.

On the cover of the order of service is one such image. It is a recent work of art conceived and created by Calcutta-born artist Gerry Judah. Two powerful cross-like sculptures stand out from the pillars just to the west of the dome, one on each side. The eye cannot avoid them. They are not beautiful, they are quite ugly, in fact. But they are magnificent in their imagery and power to speak to us.

They are shaped in the form of a cross – an image often found in churches. But not like this. If you ask a young person what they call to mind, and they will often answer “something from science fiction” or more specifically “the death star” from Star Wars.  They were in fact, created as an artistic contribution to the commemoration of the anniversary of the Armistice in 1918. The basic shape is cruciform, with the addition of models of buildings along both vertical and horizontal lines. Gerry Judah created precise architectural models of blocks of flats using papier maché, wire and paper. He then smashed those models with a broomstick – to model the force of an artillery strike on a block of flats. Those smashed models were added to the crosses to show the destruction which war brings to cities from Aleppo to Beirut, Coventry to Dresden, Ethiopia to Frankfurt, Guernica to Hiroshima, Iraq to Japan, Kobe to London. I could give a whole alphabet of bombed cities and countries – let those 12 suffice as an indication of the scale of destruction and death the world has unleashed on itself when a tyranny of evil has been allowed to pervert the goodness of humanity.

For Christians the world over, the cross – a symbol of a cruel death – is transformed to a symbol of life and hope through the death of Jesus Christ, who was raised to a new and more glorious life by the power of God. In the words of Canon Mark Oakley, who commissioned the sculptures, they are designed “to rupture the symmetry of the cathedral, just as war breaks down human harmony. Placed where they are, we are invited to walk through them, and the failure and pain they represent, into a sacred space of hope where people in all our diversity are invited to come together to worship, to respect and to learn from each other. It is a work that starkly asks of us what it must now mean for us to be loyal to our shared future.”

That this exists in St Pauls is given an extra immediacy as we are reminded of London’s own blitz, and the Nazi incendiary bomb which broke the symmetry of the dome in 1940 on the night of December 29th. It entered one side of the dome and came out the other side, landing on the stone gallery, where it was put by the firewatchers there. St Paul’s survived though all the buildings around it were destroyed by the continuous bombing.

St Paul’s today aspires to be a place where all are welcome, not just the high and mighty of the land, but people of all nations, the powerful and the powerless, where all traditions can gather to seek the unity we share as fellow members of God’s great creation – the human race, who are given stewardship of this our fragile earth.

May our knowledge of the wars and evils of the past remain a part of our consciousness so that if we feel that we are being led along a path which fuels hatred and division, we remember and pause…

If we feel that people are being victimised and abused because they are not like us, we remember and pause….

If we feel we are putting our own comfort above the basic needs of others, we remember and pause…

If we feel it is none of our business when others are being brutalized and abused, we remember and pause…

If we feel we are somehow superior to others, we remember and pause…

As we lit our candles as part of our Holocaust Day Memorial commitment we said this:

“I light this candle in memory of those who were imprisoned, tortured, and killed by the Nazis in the years 1933-1945. I commit myself to opposing prejudice, discrimination and persecution wherever I find them.”

May that commitment be our watchword in committing to a future which is free from prejudice, discrimination and persecution.

And may our God give to us – and to those who will come after us, the resolve to make that commitment, and the perseverance to remain true to that commitment so that God’s gift of peace to our world may be treasured, cherished, and passed on from generation to generation, and unto the ages of ages.