History has preserved for us two magnificent silver cups from the boggy marshes of Ireland. The first is known as the Gundestrup Cauldron and comes from a century or two before Christ, a the time when the Irish worshiped violent pagan gods. It is adorned with pictures of gods and warriors. One panel shows a gigantic cook-god holding squirming humans and dropping them into a vat of oil. These gods demand human sacrifice to appease their appetite.
The second cup is called the Ardagh Chalice and comes from the seventh or eighth centuries after Christ, a time when the Irish had turned to Christianity. Like the first it is a work of magnificent craftsmanship, but the God it depicts is radically different. It has a simple but intricate patterning. But this is a cup of peace, designed to be used in communion. As the worshiper lifts it to her lips she is reminded that this God does not demand human sacrifice, but instead sacrifices himself for us.
Source: reported in T Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilisation (Hodder, 1995)
The Manchester City Art Gallery houses a painting of Christ by Holman Hunt. It shows Jesus standing inside his father’s carpenter shop in Nazareth. He has momentarily put his saw down and is stripped down to a cloth around his waist. A weary Jesus stretches his arms above his head, casting a shadow onto the wall, a shadow in the shape of a person crucified. A long narrow tool rack hanging on the wall intersects perfectly with his shadow to give the impression of the crossbeam of the cross.
There is a woman in the foreground on the left hand side. She kneels among the woodchips, with her hands resting upon a chest that houses the gifts of the magi. It is Mary, startled by the cross like shadow cast by her son.
Hunt shows us in artform what the Gospels show us with words. The shadow of the cross was cast over Christ’s life from the beginning. His death lies at the heart of his story, and ours.
Father Maximillian Kolbe was a Polish priest who died in the Nazi death camp Auschwitz during the Second World War. His story is one of inspiring sacrifice. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939 Father Kolbe knew the firary would be seized and sent most of the friars home. With the aid of a few remaining friars he turned the resources of the friary to providing shelter for 3,000 refugees, including 2,000 Jews. He was imprisoned and released, but was not deterred. He continued to provide shelter for refugees, until May 1941 when the Nazis closed down the friary and sent Kolbe and his four fellow priests to Auschwitz.
At Auschwitz Kolbe continued his sacrificial ways. The prisoners were slowly and systematically starved, so when food was brought everyone struggled to get their portion. Father Kolbe however, made a practise of standing aside until the others had been fed, often meaning there was nothing left for him. When he did receive a portion he was often found sharing it with others.
But Father Kolbe’s love reached its greatest heights in July 1941. In order to discourage escape attempts the camp had a rule that 10 men would be killed for every person that escaped. After a man from Kolbe’s bunker escaped the rest of the men were led out to face Commander Karl Fritsch. Ten men were selected to be placed in the starvation bunker. One of them, Franciszek Gajowniczek, broke down in sobs. “My poor wife! My poor children! What will they do?”
At this, Father Kolbe stepped forward, took off his cap, stood before the commandant and said, “I am a Catholic priest. Let me take his place. I am old. He has a wife and children.”
The Commandant was astounded. “What does this Polish pig want?” he asked.
Father Kolbe pointed to Franciszek and again made his request. “I am a Catholic priest from Poland. I would like to take his place, because he has a wife and children.”
The Commandant remained silent for a minute, then agreed to Father Kolbe’s request. Franciszek Gajowniczek was returned to the ranks and Father Kolbe took his place. The ten condemned men were led off to Building 13, where they were left without food or water until they starved to death. After four weeks four of the men were still alive, Father Kolbe one of them. As the Nazis needed the chamber for more victims the four were put to death by lethal injection. And so on August 14, 1941 at the age of 47 years, Father Kolbe finally died, having given his life for Franciszek Gajowniczek. Franciszek survived the war and lived to the age of 95. He never forgot Father Kolbe or telling people of his heroic love.
Father of Kolbe of course, was following the example set for him by his Lord Jesus Christ. Just as Christ laid down his life four us, so Father Kolbe laid down his life for his brother.
Source: Information on Father Kolbe obtained from “The Holocaust” website (www.auschwitz.dk).
In his book Written In Blood, Robert Coleman tells the story of a little boy whose sister needed a blood transfusion. She had a rare blood type which she shared with her little brother. The fact that he had recovered from the same disease two years earlier made the chances of success even greater. The doctor carefully explained all this to the little boy, pointing out that without the transfusion his sister would die.
“Would you be brave and give your blood to your sister?” the doctor asked. Johnny hesitated. His lower lip began to tremble. Then he smiled and said, “Sure, for my sister.” The two children were wheeled into the hospital room – Mary, pale and thin; Johnny, robust and healthy. He smiled at his sister, the watched as the blood travelled out of his body, down the clear plastic tube. Johnny’s smile faded, and as he lay there feeling weak he looked up at the doctor and said, “Doctor, when do I die?’
Johnny thought that giving his blood to his sister meant giving up his life. Yet because of his great love for her he was prepared to pay the price.
Source: quote excerpted from Robert Coleman, Written in Blood.
An article in National Geographic several years ago provided a penetrating picture of God’s love. After a forest fire in Yellowstone National Park, forest rangers began their trek up a mountain to assess the damage. One ranger found a bird literally petrified in ashes, perched on the ground at the base of a tree. Somewhat sickened by the eerie sight, he knocked it over with bird with a stick.
When he struck it, three tiny chicks scurried from under their dead mother’s wings.
The loving mother, keenly aware of impending disaster, had carried her offspring to the base of the tree and had gathered them under her wings. She could have flown to safety but had refused to abandon her babies.
When the blaze arrived and the heat scorched her small body, the mother had remained steadfast. Because she had been willing to die, those under the cover of her wings would live.
Likewise Christ gave his life to save us from the disastrous fire of sin.
Elie Wiesel was a survivor of the dreaded Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz. He wrote of his experiences in the book The Night. In that book he relates the harrowing story of two Jewish men and a Jewish boy hanged alongside one another. Having mounted the stairs the two adults cried, “long live liberty”, but the boy was silent. Behind Wiesel someone desperately asked “Where is God” Where is He?” The chairs the victims were standing on were kicked out from under them and the three hung there. The adults died quickly, but the boy’s weight wasn’t great enough to snap his neck immediately. For more than half an hour he hung there, dying in slow agony before their eyes. Again Wiesel heard the question “Where is God now?” And standing there Wiesel heard a voice within himself answer: “Where is he? Here he is. He is hanging here on this gallows.”
When Wiesel said it was God hanging on the gallows he indicated the death of his faith. Faith in God died with that hanging child. But there is another interpretation, that God suffers with those who suffer, seen most visibly in the death of Christ hanging on his own gallows, the cross.
Source: Elie Wiesel, The Night (1969). Reported in Moltmann, The Crucified God and Stott, The Cross of Christ.
Ahmed Shah was a famous ruler of Afghanistan.
The nation had been wracked by conflict among tribal leaders, but Shah brought peace. Legend has it Shah led the people to a secret valley that he had discovered on his travels, a vast plain, bordered on all sides by sheer cliff faces. To protect their new peaceful way of life it was imperative that no-one reveal the hidden passageway into the plain.
One day, Ahmed Shah was approached by a very nervous lieutenant. “Emir, we caught someone revealing the location of the secret passageway.” The traitor was Ahmed Shah’s mother!
Ahmed Shah was distraught. He could release Ahmed’s mother, kill the soldiers who captured her and hush the whole matter up by killing the guards who had captured her. But all chaos would break loose once word of this got out. Shah decided he would think it over during the night and announce his decision in the morning.
When morning arrived everyone gathered in the square. Ahmed announced his mother must receive a hundred lashes, which would almost certainly mean her death. Ahmed’s mother was marched into the square and bound.
The first two lashes already saw her bloodied and buckled. Ahmed could bear it no longer. He halted proceedings, untied his mother and carried her to his rooms.. He walked to his mother and untied her and carried her to his bed. Then emerging from his hut, he demanded that no-one move. He had something to say. He then addressed the crowd,
“The penalty for my mother’s crime was one hundred lashes. She has paid two of them. I will pay the other ninety-eight.” By the end Ahmed was at death’s door, beaten, bloodied and bruised. For some weeks it was unclear if he would survive. He did survive and his people never forgot this act of loving grace.
Source: story reported in Michael Frost, Jesus the Fool (Sutherland, NSW: Albatross, 1994) pp138-144
Kilmer Meyers was the pastor of a church in Manhattan, USA. One of the more disturbing aspects of his pastorate was a woman named Emma who used to stand outside the church every day at 4pm and scream insults at Jesus. Emma’s pain was understandable – she was a survivor of the Holocaust. One day Bishop Meyers went outside and said to Emma, “Why don’t you go inside and tell him?” She disappeared into the church.
An hour went by and Emma had not returned. The bishop was worried and decided to look in on her. He found Emma, lying before the cross, absolutely still. Reaching down, he touched her shoulder. She looked up with tears in her eyes and said quietly, “After all, he was a Jew too.”
Source: Reported in Maggie Ross, The Fire of Your Life.