Kristallnacht, the Berlin Wall, and St. John Lateran

Seventy-five years ago, on the night of November 9, 1938, Nazi storm troopers attacked Jewish communities throughout Germany, destroying 191 synagogues, thousands of Jewish businesses, arresting 22,000 Jewish men, and deporting about half of them to Buchenwald.

Few people, in either Germany or the world protested this “Kristallnacht” – the Night of Broken Glass. The Nazis took great comfort in the silence of the world.

A cross at the Berlin Wall

A cross at the Berlin Wall

Fifty one years later, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. That year the movements for independence from Soviet control were growing throughout Eastern Europe. Finally on this day, following an announcement that East Germans would be able to pass through the wall into West Berlin with permission, thousands mobbed the border crossings and were finally let through. In following days the wall fell.

Today is also the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, the cathedral of Rome, the mother church of the whole world. The first building was dedicated in 324 and there have been many rebuilding and renovations of the structure.

St.  John Lateran, Rome

St. John Lateran, Rome

Saint John Lateran is a beautiful church which I found much more prayerful than Saint Peter’s. Its apse has a beautiful mosaic – with a small image of Francis between Our Lady and Saint Peter. A legend says that when St. Francis came to Rome to seek permission for his new band of followers of Christ, the Pope had a dream that the Lateran was falling down and a simple friar held it up. The pope identified Francis with this friar who was preventing the church from falling into ruin.

St. John Lateran - apse with the Pope cathedra

St. John Lateran – apse with the Pope’s cathedra

In the second reading for today’s feast in the Catholic lectionary (1 Corinthians 3: 9-11, 16-17), Paul tells the people of Corinth:

You are God’s field and building….
Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy.

Though Paul was writing to Christians, we ought to remember that each person is made in God’s image and should be loved and respected.

The failure of the world – especially the Christian Church – to respond to the violence of Kristallnacht is a failure to respect the presence of God in all people, a failure of the Church to love.

But this failure should be a challenge to us today, especially as we consider the feast of the Dedication of Saint John Lateran.

Will we build up the community of God in such a way that we break down walls that keep people apart and work to prevent crimes against humanity, such as the Holocaust? Or will we just admire the beauty of the churches, while we keep others out and permit the killing of others and the deaths of thousands daily from hunger?

It is easy to criticize the Church and other institutions, but, as St. Caesarius of Arles said (in a sermon found in Benedictine Daily Prayer),

Every time we come to church, we ought to make our souls be what we want the church to be…. Do you want a light-filled Church? God grant your soul not to be a dark place but alight with good works.

Let our lives be transparent like unbroken glass, letting the light of God shine through, breaking down walls and reaching out in love and justice to all the broken peoples of this world.

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