There are some experiences which are too profound for words, the enormity of the emotions which are evoked can only be comprehended weeks, maybe months later. I was struck with these thoughts as I contemplated the scene which unfolded when I visited the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau in Southern Poland.
It’s hard to express the eeriness and the sullenness which seem to overshadow the sites like a dark blanket.
The camps stand as a monument to the horrific past that seems to still taint or oppress the landscape.
It’s hard to imagine the scale of the murder and the extent of the atrocities as over one million people were killed by a regime based on racist hatred and violence.
Walking around Birkenau in particular was a humbling experience. You could barely hear a sound as a wake-like silence seemed to be the only response to the horrors which had been witnessed and endured by the Jews and many other ethnic minorities.
Much of Birkenau is in ruins; what remains as a reminder of the brutality and slaughter are the huts in which those fit enough to work where housed.
The railway arch which welcomed the trains still stands as a chilling monument to the loss of hope which greeted those who passed through its doors.
Even though the gas chambers and the crematoriums are mostly destroyed their legacy still haunts the ground on which they stood.
The bleakness and the starkness of the site cleared in the middle of the woods on which the camp was created were further intensified by the cold weather as the snow slowly descended.
As we walked around in our winter survival coats, accompanied by hats, scarves and gloves, the tour guide reminded the assembled group how the temperature was minus three.
Often in the winter the temperatures in the camps dropped to minus twenty five which the inmates had to ensure with little more than a uniform akin to pyjamas. Often men and women had to cope with no shoes, no sources of heat.
The humiliation was complete as those who suffered were stripped of their dignity and their humanity before they died.
As we celebrated Passion Sunday, in the gospel we listened to the profound mysteries by which we are saved.
In his Passion and death Jesus had to endure the humiliation and violence as he was condemned and killed as a criminal. Stripped of his dignity he was subjected to torture and a brutal execution.
For over two thousand years the brutality and the torture continues as human beings humiliate and butcher their fellow human beings.
Jesus’ response to the violence which often characterised the darkness of this world is revealed through Luke’s portrayal of his Passion.
As one commentator highlights, Jesus becomes a living sermon refusing to engage in violence and hatred.
As the outcast, the condemned man, he is in fact bearing the sins of the many.
Even in the middle of his own anguish of the cross he continues to reach out to sinners.
At the moment when Jesus is crucified as a criminal and least looks like a king or a Messiah, the good thief is able to discern in him something greater, a source of hope. For at the heart of Jesus’ mission has been God’s outreach to sinners and the marginalised, those forgotten and abandoned to the cruelty of the world.
Even on the cross Jesus continues to intercede on behalf of his enemies, to extend hope and offer the promise of salvation as he offers up his life to God the Father.
The choice is simple; we can accept Jesus’ promise of a new kingdom built on humility, justice peace and love.
Or we can continue to condemn him on the cross through our refusal to reject and challenge the violence and the hatred at work in this world.