Any normal celebration of Pentecost marks the end of the Easter season, but in 2014 the attention of citizens in Albuquerque, along with the rest of the free world, was drawn to what seemed like a long commemoration of the world wars, especially World War II. Our collective memory was even more specifically focused on the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day invasion that began the end of that horrible war.
In 2014, the celebration of Memorial Day was on May 26, the second earliest possible date to remember those who have died in all wars, thus allowing a longer period to analyze the events which many believe could have brought about the end of the world. Twelve days after the national holiday was the anniversary of D-Day. During that period television and the advertising world saturated the American public with patriotic zeal, bringing us the background stories of the principal characters involved on both sides, and we were finally able to view the epic battles in color and HD. Businesses touted their products as essential to loyal Americans.
Unfortunately, war and violence have always been a part of the human psyche. The earliest people we know about had the fulltime job of mere survival. They lived in a literal kill-or-be-killed world. Since they were not yet farmers and knew little if anything about edible vegetation, there was a good chance that what they didn’t eat might eat them. When tribes began to encounter each other, the same fear enveloped them, and the survival mentality continued. You cannot accurately tell the history of the human race without including the seemingly endless list of atrocious violence men (yes, and women) have inflicted on each other.
One such war that seemed to last forever was the Hundred Years War between England and France that overlapped the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (it actually lasted 116 years). If there was any victor in the fray, it was England, who eventually gained considerable French territory, but at what cost? What the Hundred Years War did give was the heroic, inspiring image of Joan of Arc, who is recalled in almost every children’s book of saints ever written.
World War II didn’t last a hundred years, but to those who fought in the trenches of Europe, it must have seemed at least that long. It can perhaps be more understood as a matter of good against evil with no question about the abominable threat of Nazi Germany. What could be questioned is the ‘good guy’ status of Josef Stalin, who will be remembered in history as every bit the atrocious ruler Hitler was. Sometimes war has made strange bedfellows.
However, every war produces heroes, not just the warriors, but those who stood up with words, deeds, or just their presence. Most Christians have heard of the great sacrifices of religious like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Maximilian Kolbe. Edith Stein was a brilliant student who gained a doctorate in philosophy and became a great inspirational writer. She was also a Jew who became a Catholic Carmelite nun, Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. There was a closeness between Jews and Catholics in Holland, many Jewish children enrolled in Catholic schools. With the invasion of the Nazis, the bishopric in Holland spoke openly against the deportation of Jews. In response, the Nazis not only continued to round up the Jews, but also Christians who were of Jewish extraction, as well. Teresa Benedicta was one of them, and she died in a gas chamber like the others who were persecuted under the Nazi injustice. She was canonized a saint in 1998.
Thanks largely to the epic movie, Schindler’s List, many westerners have become aware of the effort by Oskar Schindler. This German was a successful industrialist in Cracow, Poland, who saved Jews by listing them as employees, falsifying records, and occasionally even hiding them. Before that, he was not only a spy for the Germans, but was also a card carrying member of the Nazi party. Although knowledge of his brave deeds is now common, Schindler was virtually unknown until former captive Jews and factory workers began to tell their stories. He never claimed fame or honor, and his story was told by others.
Often times, heroes and saints are ordinary people thrust in extraordinary circumstances, and war has all too often provided that vehicle. One time that it didn’t was in the hours and days that followed Pentecost. There is no accurate record as to who was gathered for the reception of the Holy Spirit that day. We can assume there were twelve apostles (Matthias had joined the group, replacing Judas by then), Jesus’ mother and possibly other relatives, Mary Magdalene, and other unnamed disciples. What Acts of the Apostles tells the Bible student is that on that day, with a special blessing of the Holy Spirit of God, ordinary men and women became heroes and saints. Beginning with Peter, they spoke the story of Jesus and acted on his call to mission.
War and violence are a frightening reality of life. Soldiers still fight over disputed borders or beliefs. Covetousness is not only a cause of war, but is seen more and more in our own streets. As we move beyond the memory of the ‘great war,’ and the Church celebrates the days after Pentecost, we recall the sacrifice of the brave men and women who stood for our freedom (even as many today take it for granted); we remember those humble servants of God, who stepped forth from the upper room that day; we await in prayerful silence for the day when we too may be called from our ordinariness to be heroes and saints. The last of the Navajo Code Talkers passed away last week as another reminder of heroes and saints whose names we don’t even know.