Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Gift

Some of the worst horrors our world has ever known occurred in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. And yet even there, the Gift was present. In 1941, in Auschwitz, there was an escape of one or more prisoners from the camp. As was the practice, the commandant in charge walked through the rows of prisoners, choosing ten to execute so that the prisoners witnessing this might be deterred from trying to escape. Of those selected to die, one was a farmer named Franciszek Gojowniczek, a man who had served in the Polish army. When chosen, he cried out in anguish for the wife and children he would never see again. But then something very unusual happened. Another prisoner, # 16670, stepped forward and offered to take his place - to die in his stead. And, amazingly, the exchange was permitted, so that #16670 died and Franciszek lived. However, the death of #16670 was not a quick or easy one. He and the other nine were placed naked in an underground bunker with no food or water, to slowly die of thirst and starvation. Nonetheless, prisoner #16670 led the condemned group in hymns and prayers, until over a period of 10 days, one by one the other nine died. However, even then #16670 remained alive, alert and serene until finally, he was given an injection of carbolic acid to ensure that his body would die. An eyewitness to his death reported that, "his face was calm and radiant". As for Franciszek Gojowniczek, he was liberated from the camps and lived on until the age of 94. However, he did not die until he had appeared many times around the world to bear witness to this story. One of those occasions, in 1982, was when Pope John Paul II recognized prisoner #16670, Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, as a saint.

This story is but one of countless stories of the Gift made known in the midst of our broken world, whether made known in a way so extraordinary that it is recognized by churches and history books - or in a way so obscure that only one or two notice or experience it. One person in Auschwitz died in place of another; others, from other faiths and walks of life, simply shared with another a bit of bread that they desperately wanted for themselves. In our day-to-day world, the Gift may be made known in the sharing of time, a written word, a song, a picture, a kind touch or a glass or water. They may seem like ordinary gifts and yet they are somehow different...

As much as our culture makes a big show of gift-giving, with Christmas, birthdays and countless other occasions, many of us are uncomfortable with receiving gifts. I remember, as a young child, it always seemed easier to me to say a polite "No, thank you" when offered something as ordinary as a snack at a friend's house. "No, I mustn’t take something that is yours", I thought - and yet I don't really know why I thought that. I suspect that some of us may think that we are not worthy, feeling that some better or more deserving person should receive the gift.

Sometimes perhaps we are reluctant to accept a gift because we feel like we don't have anything to give back, "I'm sorry, I didn't get anything for you!" we cry, feeling that we cannot simply open our hands and receive. And yet other times, we may be afraid to accept a gift because we fear that there are strings attached, that somewhere beneath the surface of that gift there is going to be an expectation - or worse, an obligation that we didn't sign up for. It may seem safer just to take care of ourselves and our own needs, so that the giver will not have some claim on us.

So what is this "Gift" that I keep writing of? Quite frankly, I am not sure I know. Yet it is no accident, of course, that I am writing of it on Easter. Or perhaps I should say, that I am writing of Him. I remember that, through many of my early questioning and doubting years, I often pondered the question of what was so special about the suffering of this man, Jesus. Undoubtedly, he suffered and died - but certainly many other people have as well, some with deaths that appeared more excruciating and prolonged than his. A new awareness came to me only recently, however. And that is that if Jesus is indeed the Son of God, as Christians believe, his suffering was much, much more.

And herein lies the Gift. Perhaps, just perhaps, God, in Jesus, suffered not just once in time, but is suffering over and over as he chooses to join me in my suffering and to join you in your suffering and everyone else in theirs, now and throughout time. This would mean that he is not a God who watches our pain from afar, but one who out of love, suffers our suffering with us, taking us “by the right hand”. And in so doing, if we are willing, he leads us through to a new level of living where this outpouring of love transforms everyone and everything in its wake. This outpouring of the Holy is, I think, the Gift. It is the Hope we seek. It is the Love we seek. As we begin accepting the Gift, it changes us, gradually or in leaps and bounds, until one day we notice that the Gift is being given through us and we rejoice in our unworthiness... A gift becomes the Gift, as we see that all of the wisdom and hope and beauty and kindness is not from us but from the One who, out of love, has poured himself out. It is given to me and it is given through me. It is given to you and it is given through you.

I realized that I have run the risk of getting far too theological for those among us (all of us?) who are not sure what we believe.

The beauty of the Gift is that you don't have to know what you believe.

You do not have to be worthy.

You may feel too sad to go on.

You may feel full of rage.

You may feel abandoned by God.

You may feel confused.

You may have made horrible mistakes in your life.

You may feel that there is no one who loves you.

The Gift is still given.

And given ...



the next day

and in a year from now ...

It is always there,

waiting to be accepted

little by little

or all at once.

There is no Easter

unless Easter is every day.

I know that words and pictures and music do not make the difficulty of life go away.

But as you read this,

please know that you are not alone.

Finally, I invite you to pray or meditate or simply listen with an open heart to a beautiful expression of the Gift, a musical celebration of His triumph over death:

(The music that played here has been removed on 5/23/10, the end of the formal Easter Season, per my agreement with the copyright holder. If you have an interest in learning about Taize music and meditation, you may click on this link:

(Thank you to the following people who, without knowing you, offered to share their glimpse of the Gift with you - at no charge and with no strings attached: Caroline Benken for the first two photos, Janis McGowan for the following four photos, and the Taize Community for granting permission to play their copyrighted music on this site through the Easter season - special thanks to Sabina for facilitating that...)