Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 17th August 2014
17 August 2014 at 10:00 am
The Venerable Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Alongside the celebration of the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, this week also saw the commemoration of a martyr in the twentieth century whose life and witness still have a remarkable resonance in our own time despite the change of circumstances under which we live. The saint commemorated stands above the Great West Door of the Abbey.
Born in January 1894, at Zduńska Wola near Łódź in Poland, Maximillian—or Raymund as he was baptised—Kolbe's parents were devout Catholics, as well as polish nationalists. His father was hanged by the Russians for fighting for the independence of partitioned Poland. They practised their faith as Franciscan tertiaries, that is, as lay people who followed a rule of life according to St Francis of Assisi.
Maximillian also followed this parents' devotion to the Virgin Mary and was much influenced by a childhood vision:
'That night, I asked the Mother of God what was to become of me, a Child of Faith. Then she came to me holding two crowns, one white, the other red. She asked me if I was willing to accept either of these crowns. The white one meant that I should persevere in purity, and the red that I should become a martyr. I said that I would accept them both.'
Like many young men of his generation, his path to the priesthood include study in theology in Rome, and it was there in 1917 that he and six other students formed a new body, 'Militia immaculatae', which promoted devotion to the Virgin Mary, worked to secure converts and to perform good works.
Astonishingly, the journal they established in Poland to further the cause of Marian devotion reached a readership of some 250,000 people each day, and a monthly readership of over 1 million—something the broadsheets of our own country can only dream about!
Equally remarkable, he and a small band of Franciscans in 1930 travelled to Nagasaki in Japan to establish a small community there. Built on a mountainside thought inauspicious, it was sheltered from the atomic blast which destroyed the city in 1945. Not only did Kolbe run a newspaper, but also broadcast regularly on radio, and used his broadcasts to criticise the then growing Nazi regime for their policies towards the Jews.
With the invasion of Poland which triggered the Second World War, Kolbe harboured some 2,000 Jews in his friary at Niepokalanów. Inevitably, he was arrested and after some months found himself in Auschwitz. Prisoner #16670.
With the genocide of so many Jews, and a similar fate awaiting the Roma and others considered liberal or subversive, we should be cautious of singling out a Christian for particular mention. There were very many acts of heroism and courage, as well as cowardice and cruelty, but for Christians the story of Maximillian Kolbe has a particular resonance.
In July 1941, three prisoners escaped from Auschwitz. By way of punishment, ten other inmates were selected to be murdered in their place. One of these, Franciszek Gajowniczek was heard to shout, 'My wife! My children!'
Kolbe offered to take his place, and a fortnight later was executed. By one of those glorious and mysterious twists of fate, the date of his murder was on 14th August, the eve of the feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to whom he had given such devotion. It will not surprise you to know that in October 1982, Pope John Paul II canonised Kolbe in a ceremony at the Vatican, naming him 'Apostle of Consecration to Mary'. He did so in the presence of Franciszek Gajowniczek, whose place he had taken in Auschwitz, and who had survived the war and was reunited with his wife.
A moving story indeed, but what can we learn for ourselves? Firstly, as the homily which Pope John Paul II gave at his canonisation makes clear, such an act recalls the self-giving act of Christ upon the cross.
'"How can I repay the Lord for all his goodness to me? I will take up the cup of salvation and call upon the name of the Lord." These are words of thankfulness, death undergone for love, in place of a brother, is Father Kolbe's heroic act, by which we glorify God at the same time as his saint. For it is from God that the grace of such heroism, the grace of this martyrdom comes.'
This is what theologians call 'penal substitution': for each of us sinners there is a price to be paid, a restitution for sin. Christ in his death on the cross is understood to take on his shoulders that penalty and to bear it on our behalf.
These are among the most powerful biblical texts:
'For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.' 2 Corinthians 5: 21
'He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness.' 1 St Peter 2: 24
In this sense, Kolbe's action reminds us of the act of Christ on our behalf, and witnesses to it in a selfless manner.
But secondly, as Ulrich Simon, the Christian theologian and son of non-practising Jews, noted, it is all too easy to put the horrors of Auschwitz into the 'exceptional case' box, as if they were of a different category or time or nature, and could never be repeated:
'Theology speaks of eternal light, Auschwitz perpetuates the horror of darkness. Nevertheless, as light and darkness are complementary in our experience, and as the glory and the shame must be apprehended together, so the momentous outrage of Auschwitz cannot be allowed to stand, as it has done, in an isolation such as the leprous outcast used to inspire in the past. The evils that we do live after us; unless they are understood they may recur.'
In other words, to think that such things have simply been confined to history, is fundamentally to misunderstand history itself, and the propensity of human nature to repeat its mistake. After all, have not the killing fields of Cambodia, the genocides of Rwanda and Darfur happened since? Only God knows what is truly happening in the territories claimed by the Islamic State.
And thirdly, Kolbe's martyrdom—because that is exactly what it is—reminds us that the word 'martyr' is in danger of being corrupted by an abhorrent and misplaced use of the term in our own day.
As with Christianity, where the roots of the word mean 'witness', within Islam there is a long and honourable history of 'witnessing' to the faith, of being 'shahid'. Even of being prepared to sacrifice one's life in the defence of the faith.
A shahid is considered one whose place in paradise is promised according to these verses in the Qur'an:
وَلاَ تَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ قُتِلُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللّهِ أَمْوَاتًا بَلْ أَحْيَاءعِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ
'Think not of those who are slain in Allah's way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; They rejoice in the bounty provided by Allah: And with regard to those left behind, who have not yet joined them (in their bliss), the Shuhada's [martyrs'] glory is in the fact that on them is no fear, nor have they (cause to) grieve.' Qur'an, Sura 3 (Al-i-Imran)
However, the rise of a different understanding of 'martyrdom', including videos in which an individual attempts to take others' lives through their own suicide, through killing themselves is an aberration which mainstream Islam refuses to condone or acknowledge.
And finally, we are reminded that at root a martyr is one who is called to bear witness, to uphold the faith, to stand firm in adversity. In short, this is the vocation of every baptised Christian.
May God give us grace and strength to summon up the witness, the martyr, the Maximillian Kolbe in each one of us.