During these wintry days as we suffer the rawness of the season, two events collide to bring much perspective. Today we mark the industrial-scale killing of six million men, women and children, known as the Holocaust or Shoah in Hebrew. This year Holocaust Memorial Day is focusing on the theme, “How can life go on?” The theme picks up the thoughts of Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor who wrote, ‘For the survivor death is not the problem. Death was an everyday occurrence. We learned to live with Death. The problem is to adjust to life, to living. You must teach us about living.’

The other event juxtaposing the memories of the Holocaust is, in fact, a celebration of Jewish life, the rite of purification re-told in Luke’s gospel. Jesus was presented in the Temple after Mary, his mother, had performed her own purification, in obedience to the Law of Moses. Jesus was then presented to the priest in the temple as a sign of the Abrahamic covenant, ‘born under the law'(Galatians 4:4-5). Jesus was therefore born into the Jewish community which required of him to live a disciplined, ordered and dedicated life formalised by God’s statutes and ordinances. The presentation of Jesus in the temple became known – through a history of pagan reference and ecclesiastical response – as Candlemas. The festival centred upon the words of Simeon “My own eyes have seen the salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of every people: a light to reveal you to the nations and the glory of your people Israel.” (Luke 2:30-32). The candle light becomes symbolic of the Christ-light in the world, blessed, bringing a new hope to the places of darkness and despair. This is the epiphany that Christ is the light of the nations.

So, two important Jewish events but also two events which resonate not only with Jews and Christians but all of humanity. One, bringing the purity of light to the world, the other, only darkness.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, I have been taken back to the memory of writing about Shoah inspired by a painting and its portrayal of the destructive potential which humans can reach:

The Hebrew word Shoah is enscribed upon the bottom left corner of the painting meaning calamity, disaster, desolation and catastrophe.  The predominantly black and white image uses acrylic and paper as its main media.  The painting takes the viewer into its heart by the way of a path engulfed by the imposing nuisance of tall, dark trees.

Phil Whiting was commissioned to paint a series of compositions called Places of Mourning in the Western World. This series took the artist to Flanders, Oradour, Auschwitz-Birkenau, Ground Zero, and lastly to Srebrenica. It was in response to his visit to Bosnia in 2006 that Whiting painted Shoah which formed part of the exhibition Srebrenica: Paintings from the Grave.

The painting illustrates the lived-out history that woods are places where awful events take place.  For the wildwoods, the darkest forests are uninhabited places where the physical nature of place strips people of their identity.  Shoah is a powerful painting which reminds the viewer of his susceptibility to err, to fall, to cause calamity, disaster, desolation and catastrophe.  In other words, the painting demonstrates the close proximity between aspects of the human condition which are life-giving and the contrary forces which seek death. (Called by Mind & Spirit, Crossing the Borderlands of Childhood, Continuum-Mowbray, 2010)

How can life go on? How is it possible to see any light when we are immersed in the black forest? Perhaps we simply need to hear again the words of Simeon which foreshadowed Jesus’ crucifixion and the desolate sorrow of his mother, Mary. Life does go on because God has seen the worst, the most evil and depraved actions. People have become de-humanised in order to reach such depth. But the candle’s light reveals our faces, our true identity – our brokenness and vulnerability. Our calling is to be human, as God intended, to be lights to the nations, to be like Christ. We will not disengage and cut off from the horrors of our human narrative. We will walk with the suffering God and we will shine a light and we will remember, that is what living is about.


Author: Gavin Knight

The Revd Gavin Knight has been the Vicar of St Michael & All Angels, Summertown in the Oxford Diocese since September 2011. After serving his title at St Alphege, Solihull, Gavin became parish priest of St Andrew's Fulham Fields in London. He moved to Wales in 2005 becoming Chaplain to Monmouth School. He is married to Jo, a clinical psychologist, and they have three sons.