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Lent is the rainbow

2016-02-09 09:08


I want to take you to a place where you might never have been. want to take you to Auschwitz. You will have seen photographs in the newspapers and on television, so you can probably imagine the emaciated faces and bodies of men, women and children held captive in a concentration camp, the name of which will forever remain a symbol of horror and cruelty. I want you to imagine the huts and the crematoria surrounded by barbed wire. Even today, the soil is barren and a witness to scenes which we hope and pray will never happen again. Yet, in spite of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Theresienstadt – and Guantánamo Bay – there is no peace in our world. Violence and cruelty have not ended. Human rights are still disregarded and human beings discarded in the clamour to satisfy human greed and the search for power at any cost.


The date is 28 May 2006 and it is the day when Pope Benedict visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. He has already refused the well-meaning offer the Polish president to accompany him as he walks alone towards the wall of death where so many prisoners died. He has visited the cell of Maximilian Kolbe, the Franciscan who asked if he could take the place of the family man and was murdered in his place. Pope Benedict then stood out in the open as a Jewish choir sang Kaddish, mourning the cruel deaths of millions.


It had been raining heavily that afternoon. As the choir sang, the television cameras travelled over the site of the concentration camp. It was unbelievably moving to see the huts, the crematoria and the barbed wire. Yet, suddenly, God spoke. As the cameras passed by the crematoria, the black clouds broke and a magnificent rainbow crossed the sky. God had repeated his promise of "never again!" God spoke in that rainbow and I was not the only member of Vatican Radio staff to cry. God chose a rainbow that evening to remind the world of a different reality than “man’s inhumanity to man”.


After his baptism in the Jordan, Jesus went into the wilderness, where he stayed for forty days. The Gospel tells us that, at his baptism, the heavens were torn apart and God spoke to him – but then he went into the wilderness, a lonely place where solitude could easily become loneliness and despair. And yet it is also a place of hope. Jesus emerged from that wilderness convinced of his mission, "proclaiming the good news of God". Even the wilderness has the qualities of a rainbow.

I spent six years living on the banks of one of Zambia’s largest lakes. During the rainy season, the sky would go black with heavy clouds. The waters of the lake returned from blue to black. Yet, on the horizon, a thin line of gold proved that the heaviest storm could not entirely send away the sunlight. In the midst of deafening rolls of thunder, lightning pierced the darkness with its exquisitely beautiful blue light. The thunderstorm was itself a promise of a rainbow.

This week, with the beginning of Lent, we walk into the wilderness with Jesus. Did he have a clear idea of the path ahead of him? I suspect not. If he had known every step of his way, he would have missed out on an essential part of our daily human life: the journey through the dark, through the floods, the uncertainty, the storms and the vast wilderness in search of the rainbow. Jesus was God but he was also a human being with a deep need to discover the rainbow.

God gave Noah and his family the rainbow of hope. The despair of Auschwitz gave way to another rainbow. After his time in the wilderness, Jesus became our rainbow, bringing us the good news of God’s faithful love. Lent is so often seen as a time of self-denial and of penance, but, in fact, it is a time for walking with Jesus in search of the rainbow of his life, love and hope. Perhaps Lent is the rainbow because it is a promise of the resurrection.

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