God in the darkness

| Father Michael Johnson | March 19, 2019 | 0 Comments
railroad tracks


“God called out to him from the bush, ‘Moses! Moses!’ He answered, ‘Here I am.’ God said, ‘Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’”

“The place you stand is holy ground.” The first time I ever encountered the sense of a place’s sacredness, where I knew I was standing on holy ground, was a most unlikely place: Auschwitz concentration camp. Even two decades later, the jarring contrast between the horror of that place and the awareness of God’s presence remains vivid in my memory.

The day I visited Auschwitz was a dreary day. The thick clouds that threatened, but never quite delivered a downpour of rain, added to the dark weight the prison camp imposed upon me as I toured the dormitories and warehouses of that awful place. The evil of the place kept bubbling to the surface as I passed through warehouses full of hair, suitcases, spectacles, pots and pans. There are few if any places on earth that have witnessed such a concentration of evil such that the stones of the buildings — and even the ground itself — cry out with the blood of those who died there.

My tour wound deeper and deeper into the heart of the camp until we came to the prison within a prison. The wall of the courtyard was pockmarked with bullet holes. Inside was even darker, with a series of tiny cells where the Nazis gave special attention to problematic prisoners. Yet in that cellblock, I was struck by a profound sense of peace — dare I say holiness.

One of the cells was slightly adorned: a candle flickered softly and a bunch of flowers lay on the floor, but there was nothing to indicate why such peace could radiate from this cellblock. The tour guide may have mentioned the who and the what of this place, but to someone just out of high school, the words washed over me without penetrating. However, the sense of peace, the sense of God’s presence did penetrate.

After I entered seminary several years later, I stumbled across St. Maximilian Kolbe after discovering that the Church celebrates his memorial on my birthday. I bought a biography on him and eventually got around to reading it. As it began to describe the events leading to his death in Auschwitz, the pieces began to fall into place. That room I had visited years before was the room in which St. Maximilian Kolbe had been killed by the Nazis.

The lesson from that day, though taking a while to learn, remains with me today: If God can penetrate into the darkness contained within the walls of a concentration camp, then God can penetrate anywhere.

Moses is tending the flocks of his father-in-law when we encounter him in this Sunday’s first reading from Exodus. At this point in his life, Moses has become the disgraced son of Pharaoh’s daughter, yet God comes to him in the desert and announces himself. Then, even more improbably, God announces that he has heard his people’s cry and that he will deliver his people from their slavery in Egypt. God never abandons his people in their darkest hour.

Centuries later, the prefigurement found in Moses would find its fulfillment in Christ — in his incarnation, passion, death and resurrection. God is with us — Emmanuel. Wherever we find ourselves, into whatever darkness we have descended, wherever we feel most estranged from God — he is there.

As we continue our journey through the season of Lent, let us open our lives to Christ and allow him to come into whatever darkness shrouds us, allow him to come into whatever prison binds us and allow him to lead us through whatever dark valley we may have found ourselves lost.

Father Johnson is the judicial vicar of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Sunday, March 24
Third Sunday of Lent

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Category: Sunday Scriptures