On Good Friday, the hours between noon and 3 o’clock have traditionally been reserved for the faithful to reflect on Jesus Christ’s great suffering on the cross. Churches encourage prayer, reflection, and silence. Your humble scribe is not good at any of those things. So, half a dozen years ago now, I went looking for help.
I found an indispensable aid in the form of a short book by the New Testament scholar Joel Marcus. It carries the highly improbable title (for the purposes of Good Friday reading, anyway), Jesus and the Holocaust: Reflections on Suffering and Hope. When I told a Jewish friend about my annual reading habit, he joked that it was mighty goy of me to give “equal time” to a rebuttal of the Gospel of John.
That is not why I keep coming back to Jesus and the Holocaust. I come back because it has a way of concentrating the mind on Good Friday like no other devotion that I am aware of. I come back because it is a beautiful book and a brave one.
The project began when Marcus preached the Good Friday service at the Episcopal cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1995. That year also marked the 50th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust and so Marcus, who is Jewish by birth and Anglican by conversion, determined to “explore the links between that one Jewish death” in the first century and the some “6 million Jewish deaths that occurred more than 1,900 years later.”
Marcus took this approach because he had “wanted to see if the hope that Christians have found hidden in the darkest hour of their liturgical year might shed any light on the most tragic moment of our recent history — and vice versa.” He gave the parishioners (and, later, readers) the sort of stories that they expect from the Gospels and the Hebrew Bible at this time of year, and also poems, paintings, and tales of Jewish persecution.
To wit, before Marcus gets to the reading from the prophet Isaiah about the “suffering servant” (a figure Christians interpret as Jesus and Jews believe to be Israel), he relays to us the story of the liquidation of 4,000 Jews from the Lithuanian shtetl of Eisysky on September 25, 1941. The town’s Jews were ushered to open graves, ordered to strip, and then, in groups of 250 or so at a time, “shot in the back of the head by Lithuanian guards with the encouragement and help of the local people.”
One teenage boy named Zvi Michalowsky was put on that firing line but survived. He did so in the first place because of good timing. He figured out when the volleys were coming and launched himself into the pit of bodies a split second before the soldiers fired. The boy continued to get by because of his cunning and his audience.
After Zvi clawed his way out of the pit, he made his way to a few Christian homes and begged for shelter. “Jew, go back to the grave where you belong!” the first homeowner told him. The naked, bloodied young man was similarly rebuked until he got to the home of an old widow, who tried to chase him away with a burning piece of wood. Rather than run away, he, well, he innovated. “I am your Lord, Jesus Christ,” Zvi said, “I came down from the cross. Look at me — the blood, the pain, the suffering of the innocent. Let me in.” And let him in she did.
Marcus’s multidisciplinary (some would say jumbled) approach was not one that carried with it any assurance of success and it could have gone badly wrong. This is a danger that the author absolutely grasped. The most obvious point of the third chapter (“An Atheist in Five Minutes”) is that “nothing can induce despair more quickly than a premature, ill-thought-out affirmation of faith.”
Jesus and the Holocaust gets the mood and the magnitude of Good Friday exactly right. There is hope here today, but it’s buried pretty deep.