notre dame montreal

Holocaust Memorial Day

Sermon preached by
The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman

I pray that I would speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit

Holocaust Memorial Day is perhaps summed up in the reading from Isaiah (chapter 9, verse 2):

The people walking in darkness (or the shadow of death as its translated in Psalm 23) have seen a (great) light

For while things may not be easy for the Jews these days, the darkness of the oppression of the Sho'ah, the Holocaust are beginning to pass.

The war days of prejudice, persecution, and violence, which demonstrated how easily totalitarian governments can come to power and the fragility of democracy, began to end on 27 January 1945 when Auschwitz was liberated by the Soviet Army.

In the previous 6 years, 6 million Jews had been murdered as had millions others from so called minority groups, Gypsies, Slavs, Russian POW's, the physically and mentally disabled, and homosexuals all perished.

They were indeed dark days when many walked very literally in the shadow of death. And for Jews, even using the word holocaust to describe what went on is a dark and painful word, a word loaded with meaning.

The olah, the burnt offering, or specifically 'the ascending', the fragrant aroma of the offering reaching up to God in the form of the smoke from the offering is an all too painful reminder for many of the stench of the camps, the gas chambers and the smoke which rose from them. And so they prefer to use the word Sho'ah to describe the events which happened, a word which means desolation, catastrophe, destruction.

Its particularly significant and poignant because the burnt offering which was offered to God in the days of the Old Testament was a sign of the restoration of the covenant relationship with Him, a sign of sins forgiven, a sign to thank God for His goodness to them, and as such it was a voluntary gift.

The Jews of the camps were never volunteers, and I must admit to finding the word holocaust increasingly difficult.

Because it was not a time of voluntary offerings, it was a time of destruction and desolation, day after day after day. Not so much days of burnt offerings but, Yom ha Sho'ah.

The systematic destruction of 6 million Jews, and millions of others whilst the rest of the world, including factions of the church did, and said, little.

How ironic then that the only people to come out of the situation with any dignity and honour are the Jews themselves and the people who saved so many of them through heroic acts of bravery and self sacrifice.

And perhaps, how like God.

50 years after the liberation of Auschwitz, The Holocaust Memorial Day was proposed to commemorate not just the Holocaust or Sho'ah, but also to acknowledge the repeated occurrences of genocide, such as Cambodia, Rwanda and Bosnia, and to renew the commitment of the British people to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia.

On Holocaust Memorial Day we remember and pray for those who died when madness ruled the world and evil prevailed on earth. Because if we forget, the way is prepared for yet more holocausts, yet more Sho'ah. Therefore we must never forget.

As we look back, it's a time of painful memories and a time for which the church, among others, has had to ask for forgiveness from God and from those who suffered as a result of the atrocities.

But if we only look back, we position God as only the God of the past, and not the God of the present and the future.

Because as we look forward from the time of the Sho'ah we can be encouraged.

Despite all the darkness, the God's light did not go out.

However dark it seemed, there was always hope, there always is, and there always will be.

However painful the experience and the memories if the past there can always be healing, wholeness and forgiveness in the present and the future.

The Jews in the Isaiah reading were in exile, the area of Galilee, Zebulon and Naphtali were devastated and there seemed no hope. And so it may have seemed for 700 years.

But then along came Jesus who began to start the change, start the healing, start the hope.

For just as the very place where Jesus had been baptised and had opened they way for a new inheritance for us had been the place where the Israelites crossed the Jordan into their new inheritance, so the place where Jesus starts His ministry, Galilee, is the place which for many is associated with desolation, destruction and catastrophe, Sho'ah. The Galilee spoken about by Isaiah.

The very place in need of reclamation, and repentance for the sins which led to the area being a place of desolation, was the place where Jesus started to call His first disciples, to teach and to minister.

Scripture was being fulfilled, salvation was being preached to the Gentiles, and the Kingdom of God was being proclaimed, 3 themes which will occur repeatedly as we study the Gospel of Matthew in the coming year.

It was in the same Galilee that had been laid waste that Jesus began preaching about a new kind of freedom, the good news of the Kingdom. The foundation for a new covenant relationship with God was being laid. 

Through Jesus all who turned to Him found wholeness, healing and restoration. Whatever the past had been like, whatever the scars and burdens that the past had left on people's lives. Scars and burdens which sometimes run deep for us all. Scars which sometimes take many years to be healed, burdens which sometimes take time to be lifted.

Scars which Jesus heals, burdens which Jesus lifts.

For the wholeness and restoration that Jesus offers is for all, each one of us, not just for some privileged race. It's for all, even those on the other side of the Jordan as the Bible reading puts it, perhaps very aptly for our times.

In Him we have the hope of new life in Him, a new beginning, a covenant relationship restored.

The Holocaust Memorial Day reminds us of dark times, when even survival was not possible for many.

It also reminds us of the piercing light of God, shining through His Son Jesus, which will never be extinguished.

It reminds us of the eternal hope we have in Jesus

Above all, it reminds us of a resilience of faith which is beyond our understanding

Sam Cappleman, January 2002

Bible Readings and Notes, and Intercessions for Holocaust Memorial Day.

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