... a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance. Ecclesiastes 3:4
Jesus said, Blessed are those who mourn. Matthew 5:4
It’s hard to visit Auschwitz without ending up pretty solemn. And rightly so, of course.
It’s a terrible place - this place where the Nazis put into action their plan to rid Europe of the Jewish people. A place of - what words remotely describe it? - mass murder, genocide, killing on an industrial scale. A place of cruelty beyond imagination. A place revealing human nature at its most depraved. A place of infinite, almost tangible, sadness.
A place where, if my brief experience is anything to go by, you keep finding yourself shaking your head with sheer disbelief as you move about and try to take it in. How could such things be?
The adjoining concentration camps of Auschwitz and Birkenau are still there, but standing now as a sombre museum to remind the world of things that must never be forgotten.
Nina and I were in the beautiful nearby Polish town of Krakow earlier this week, and though a visit to Auschwitz could hardly be described as “something to look forward to” when you’re on holiday, it seemed unthinkable not to take the opportunity of a visit.
I’m so glad we did. In a sense, there was little new to learn - since childhood we have been familiar with those grainy black-and-white photos of human beings, mainly Jews but not exclusively so, being herded like cattle onto trains, or into massively overcrowded barrack blocks. Or, of course, into gas chambers.
But it was good to be there, to sense the atmosphere, to try to imagine these places as seething hubs of activity and noise, of life and death.
Two Bible passages came to mind.
The writer of Ecclesiastes 3 reflects on the immense variety of life, and in verse 4 especially on the opposites, weeping-and-mourning and laughing-and-dancing.
How good it is to laugh! Laughter surely is one of God’s greatest gifts to humanity; there’s something seriously wrong if you are unable to laugh. But there’s something seriously wrong also if you are unable to grieve, weep, and mourn. And this is reflected in Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount.
The word “mourn” has rather lost its meaning in today’s world. We tend to associate it exclusively with the time death visits us as individuals and families: “mourners” are people attending a funeral.
But that, I think, is only a tiny part of what Jesus meant. “Those who mourn” are, first, people so acutely aware of their own sins and failings in the sight of God that they can pray from the heart, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13).
And they are also, second, those with a sense of the immeasurable sadness and misery of so many people in our troubled world - those who have something of the heart of Jesus as, looking at the helpless crowds, he was “moved with compassion” (Mark 8:2) .
I think there would be something very wrong with us if we could visit a place like Auschwitz and not be led to mourn in both those senses. “Yes,” we can say to ourselves, “I too am a sinner, capable of horrible thoughts, words and deeds, even if I have never expressed them in such an extreme form.”
And “Yes, I too need the soft and tender heart of Jesus to feel for those who suffer all around me - whether people in my own little circle, or the sad souls I see daily on the television news.”
We live in a society that loves to laugh. And what’s wrong with that? But there are times too when it’s important to have the laugh wiped off our silly, shallow faces, and to face up to the brute truth about ourselves and our world.
Well, I don’t remember seeing many smiles on the faces of the groups being shepherded around Auschwitz last week. All right, the smiles were no doubt back a few hours later in the lovely bustle of Krakow’s market square. But I dare to hope that everyone who shared that experience - certainly me, anyway - ends up a better, deeper person as a result.
There are times when it’s no bad thing to have the laugh wiped off our faces.
Have mercy upon me, O God, according to your unfailing love; according to your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. Amen. (Psalm 51)
And here is a beautiful prayer by Graham Kendrick...
Soften my heart, Lord,/ Soften my heart./ From all indifference/ Set me apart,/ To feel your compassion,/ To weep with your tears;/ Come soften my heart, O Lord,/ Soften my heart. Amen.