Up the Chimney

Tuesday’s newscasts led off quite justifiably with news of a winter-edition hurricane bludgeoning the northeastern coast of the United States, literally flooding oceanside neighborhoods with brackish slush. But if that weren’t enough to sink hearty New Englanders’ spirits it was quickly followed by the truly important news of the day. The beloved Patriots, preparing for yet another Super Bowl appearance, continued to defend themselves against allegations that they cheated by inserting underinflated footballs into their offensive game plan. In consideration of all these weighty and important matters you may have missed a particularly grim anniversary marking 70 years since the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp called Auschwitz.

Perhaps you have seen a movie called The Book Thief. It’s an ironic flick in that it portrays the beautiful sanctity of life, yet is narrated by Death. I recommend it. Liesel, the main character, together with her foster parents courageously provide refuge for a young Jewish man named Max in their dank, musty basement, hiding him there for months from the Third Reich. In the course of time Liesel and Max become close friends sharing an affinity for both books and writing. When Christmas arrives Liesel and her father present Max with an impromptu indoor snowball battle. Max presents Liesel with an equally odd and unexpected gift; a book the printing of which he has completely blotted out so as to leave nothing but clean, white pages with one single exception. Max inscribed the first page with the Hebrew verb meaning “to write.”

Max explains that his religion teaches that living things are only living things by virtue of the fact that they contain a “secret word for life.” Of the blank pages he explains, “The only difference between us and the lump of clay is the word. Words are life, Liesel.” Thus Max intends the blank pages of that particular book to be for his young friend Liesel to write her own story.

Christians should contest the secrecy of the word that remained a mystery to Max. The New Testament clearly proclaims, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” In short the Word is Jesus, the eternal Son of God with no beginning or end, present in the creation of the world. Jesus, the eternal Son of God “who took to himself a true body”* in order to redeem humanity and, in his death and resurrection, gives new life to those who place their faith in him. Indeed for the Christian the Word is the difference between us and the lump of clay.

Blizzards and football games notwithstanding, the news of the day does not typically provide much in the way of optimism. For example, conservative estimates are that 1.1 million human beings met their end at Auschwitz by a variety of means, but most notably gas chambers where individuals were suffocated by pesticide. Others died as the result of starvation, hard labor, or medical experimentation. In any case nearly all of them went “up the chimney” to quote survivors of the camp. That is the bodies of the deceased were burned nightly in the camp’s crematorium in such a manner as to make a lasting impression on those still among the living. The sheer volume of the atrocities at Auschwitz more than 70 years ago is astounding. Nonetheless atrocities still continue, many of them designed to and having left a lasting impression upon those of us still among the living. This is a lamentable fact not at all lost on the remaining survivors of Auschwitz. They would remind us, as many of them have vowed to do to their last day, that these things, injustices leading to the degradation of all human life, simply should not be.

Of course there are innumerable ways to die. Thankfully most of us will not go up the chimney in the manner of Auschwitz. But regardless of the circumstances and despite its inevitability death is not something we were ever meant to embrace. Granted, neither is interminable suffering something the likes of which we are meant to embrace. But death is not the ultimate solution to our suffering.

If that were the case, that is if death were the ultimate answer to suffering and worthy of our acceptance and embrace, that would mean that the suicide bombers who frequent daily newscasts really do have it figured out. It would mean that abortion really is justifiable for any reason because let’s face it, parents often suffer at the hands of their children. One race suffers at the hand of another, thus what should they do with themselves according to such a misguided principle? Such logic would further lead to the conclusion that homes for the aged and infirm are indefensible given that they prolong suffering. Hospice care would be deemed ludicrous. And all those who endured unspeakable suffering at Auschwitz, yet still live…

I dare not even complete that thought. I for one am not willing to accede to the assertions or implications of anything close to the logic of the above paragraph. I bet you aren’t either.

The ultimate answer to our suffering, or to our problems, inconveniences, annoyances, or any injustice, rests not in death but in faith. Life comes from God, quite literally by his Word. Death, like suffering, is merely the consequence of the rejection of that Word. Not an answer; only a consequence. And death is easily overcome by acceptance of the Word, through faith. Given the inevitability of dying it takes considerable courage to make such a statement in the face of death. It may seem akin to spitting into the wind. Defiant? Certainly. Courageous? Perhaps. Worth the effort? Well, I suppose that’s debatable, but not if a person’s faith is in the One, the Word, who gives both life and new life. If that is the case then, and only then, is one on to something truly newsworthy.


*Westminster Shorter Catechism, 22.