I want to start off by saying that this is not an easy question. A lot has been written about this subject. I don’t mean to exhaust the richness or complexity of this theological problem that has fascinated a large part of Christian theologians-not without a headache or two- from the beginning of Christianity. However, this is not exclusive to theology; this is a question a child could ask: “Dad, why did he die on the cross? Wasn’t he God? Have you thought of how you would respond if your child asked you that question?
I’ve read many books that touch upon the problem, but I wouldn’t want to do a theological-historical rundown to give an answer. It’s very important to know the arguments and reasons that theology offers to illuminate our reason, but from the very beginning we must understand that we are before a mystery that we may never come to fully understand. Note: by mystery I don’t mean an incomprehensible reality enclosed in itself. In Christian terms this mystery is a reality that exceeds human intellect, but thanks to the Revelation has been left slightly open, revealing what is necessary to let us know that what it hides is a lot bigger than we think, and if we can go into this mystery and even get to know some of these folds, all knowledge that comes close to the truth will always be a grace received an not a personal goal.
This being said – which is very important – I want to tell you about a personal experienced that moved me profoundly and helped me to understand more clearly meaning of the cross of Christ. It happened a few months ago, when I had the chance of going to Auschwitz, one of the most known nazi concentration camps of World War II. Thousands of people died in that place, mostly Jewish but there were also Christians and people of other faiths. For those who don’t know- just to name a few- this is where St. Maximilian Kolbe died heroically.
Auschwitz is made up of pavilions where prisoners lived and worked. Now, these pavilions are small museums that remember the aspects of the lives of these men. I only mention men because even though women and children were also sent to Auschwitz, they were sent to the gas chambers as soon as they were taken off the trains because they were not considered strong enough for the forced labor adult men were submitted to.
In each of the pavilions you can see many of the personal objects that were taken away from those who arrived at the concentration camps as well as the bathrooms and rooms where they lived in inhumane conditions.
I must admit, my attitude during much of the tour of the pavilion was that of a curious tourist who wanted to know more about the event that left a mark on the history of the 20th century. What suddenly changed my approach was the sudden cry of a woman as we entered a large room where an impressive amount of hair that the nazis cut off their victims to use in who knows what way in the German textile industry is exhibited.
I’m ashamed to admit it, but it was that woman’s cry that helped me understand what I was living out in that very moment. Maybe it was then, more than ever, that my heart contemplated for a few seconds the abyss of hate and indifference that is so great and empty. For a brief moment I experimented a great rejection of all that God and his love mean to me. It was something like if God had been truly buried in those pavilions and nothing or no one could fill the void of the separation between Him and us that human freedom had created.
I left the room of the hair feeling disgusted. In my religion classes I have told my students thousands of times that freedom is such a powerful gift that with it we can come to reject God, but never had I thought about the loneliness and emptiness that the phrase contains. I went to the restrooms to recover a bit, but I couldn’t contain the flood of images and memories that were lodged in my mind and my imagination. My pictures of a distracted tourist became without knowing it the history of an unutterable pain.
From that moment my view continued on very different coordinates. I stopped taking pictures with my cell phone and tried to finish the tour with a spiritual mindset open to mystery that was in front of me. I’m not sure I achieved it. During this time I felt hate, outrage, I confronted God a few times and felt ashamed of my condition-my humanity.
At the exit of the pavilions, a good friend of caught up with me and asked if I had seen the crosses. “What crosses?” I asked. He explained rather quickly that some of the Christian prisoners would carve crosses on the walls of their cells and that there was one prisoner who even carved the Sacred Heart of Jesus onto the wall. I’m not sure what moved him to take out his cell phone and show me the pictures- maybe my expression of half surprised, half doubtful-but I thanked him greatly…
I thanked him but not because the pictures were lovely. Strangely enough, I didn’t even think, “How wonderful, such hope in these men who despite their pain trusted in Jesus’ love.” Knowing myself that would have been my usual thought. What I thought and felt deeply when I saw the pictures was, “The heart of these men demands a victim, someone who could pay the price of this evil hell.” Don’t ask me why, but I felt that the carved cross was a claim for justice, an expression that is humanly felt of metaphysical constitution of the world. A world where evil cannot have the last word simply because its essence is absolute silence.
Who then can pay the price of Auschwitz? What word can fill the silence we have created? It surely isn’t Hitler and his followers. The price of the evil committed is so great that no human heart could pay for it. This void demands a different victim, not human. It demands a special heart, bigger, capable of saying one word that is deeper than the ocean. This huge heinous act that is open like a wound in our history demands the sacrifice of a Sacred Heart.
It was hard to think that the deep cry of these crosses and hearts that were etched in Auschwitz could find peace in a smile or in a divine snap of the fingers. If forgiveness always implies an act of love, the challenge in forgiving an abyss of hate and indifference can only be assumed by a person who can shed love and goodness into this abyss. It is then that the cross is drawn in the horizon like the way that God chose to heal and correct-to repair- the grave evil that we in our freedom have created. I speak of Auschwitz but I also speak of human history, I speak of the evil we commit everyday. The danger of this discourse that I have prepared until now is to think the Christ’s cross came here to repair the evil of those who are truly evil: Hitler, the Nazis, Osama Bin Laden and other wretched characters…Do you think the people in this picture are monsters?
No, right? However, they were personnel working in Auschwitz after their lunch break. The arrival of evil in our lives is a cunning and silent mystery that arrives like a bolt of lightning that forces us to hug perverse options and is more dangerous than we think. Evil is absence, remember that, and as such the good mixes with the bad. Evil disguises itself as indifference, as good reasons, as healthy concern for oneself until it slowly reaches carelessness for other. Maybe our sin doesn’t take on the form of Auschwitz, but deep down, isn’t it the same indifference, the same carelessness, the same mediocrity, the same refusal to be truly human?
Maybe the crosses and the hearts etched in Auschwitz also demand the forgiveness of my sins. This was the same idea that rocked me with force that day and one that I hope will forever stay with me. Maybe my indifference and “small” sins- contrary to what I believed- can’t be healed with a simple smile. They demand the sacrifice of a Sacred Heart.
May God forgive.
Opinions are welcome. I send you all a hug.
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