St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Polish priest, born near the end of the 19th century. He was a brilliant Franciscan; he had earned two doctorates by the age of 25. He did missionary work in Japan. He used technology in every possible way to spread the gospel. He founded a city in Poland dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and over 800 monks lived there, many of them drawn by his example of joy and holiness. In 1941 he was arrested by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. The Nazis, it’s often forgotten, not only hated the Jewish people, but they also hated Christians. As the prisoners entered this hell on earth they were welcomed with this message: “You have not come to a sanitarium but to a Nazi concentration camp, from which there is no other exit except the crematorium. If there are Jews here, they do not have a right to live more than two weeks. If there are priests, they can live a month; the others, three months.”
In late July of 1941, a prisoner escaped somehow from the camp, or at least went missing and was never found. As punishment the commandant said that ten people from the cellblock out of which the man escaped would be executed by being locked inside a starvation bunker under the ground. The commandant had the prisoners stand at attention most of the day and then finally began walking through the lines picking the condemned. The tenth man he selected began to cry out, “Goodbye, goodbye, my dear wife! Goodbye, my dear children.” At this the unthinkable happened. Kolbe stepped out of the line and walked in front of the SS commandant, who said to him, “What does this Polish pig want?” Kolbe answered, “I am a Polish priest; I want to take his place because he has a wife and children.” And the commandant agreed to let Kolbe take the man’s place, a man who survived Auschwitz and was reunited with his family.
And so Kolbe, who was 47 at the time, was placed with the nine others condemned into the concrete starvation bunker to die. But an odd thing happened in that bunker. Out of it, heard both by the prisoners in the camp and the SS guards, came singing. In the middle of this place, a hell on earth, Kolbe was leading the others in prayer and song. So annoying did this become for the Nazis that after two weeks of this they finally entered the bunker and executed Kolbe by a lethal injection.
Now I bring up St. Maximilian today be-cause he is, I think, a more recent and pow-erful example of St. Paul and of his words to us in the entrance antiphon. St. Paul says to us, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Have no anxiety at all.” Now these may not be easy words to hear especially if we’ve lost a job, or we are worrying about the next house payment, or we are about to approach the holidays for the first time after the death of a loved one, or we are helping someone going through chemotherapy and all the hardships entailed with that, or maybe we’re going through that ourselves. Or maybe it’s something else entirely that makes us anxious, this pandemic maybe? We might be tempted to say to St. Paul, “Maybe if you knew the suffering I’m going through, or if you were in a situation like mine, you wouldn’t say words like “Rejoice!” And “Have no anxiety at all.” Come on St. Paul!
But when St. Paul wrote these words of rejoice and have no anxiety, he was sitting in a prison cell. Like Kolbe in that starvation bunker, Paul was confined to an under-ground prison when he wrote this. And just as Kolbe was able, by the power of the Holy Spirit, to sing hymns in Auschwitz, so Paul could say in prison awaiting his own execution, “Rejoice!”
How? Today’s Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete Sunday, is all focused on joy. But Paul and Kolbe and all the saints powerfully remind us that joy isn’t dependent on and doesn’t come from the particular circumstance I find myself in whether that’s being in a concentration camp, prison, out of work, struggling with cancer, or having difficulties in my marriage. And neither Paul nor Kolbe were under the illusion God was going to swoop in and rescue them and “make it all better.” No. Their joy, their real joy, was rooted in what God had already done in their lives and for all the world, and in what He has said will happen when either He returns or I die, whichever comes first.
So, what has He done that causes such joy? There are three things. First, He has “Removed the judgment against us.” Our Lord forgives, we can repent, our past does not define us, our past does not define us when we come to Him in repentance in the sacrament of reconciliation. Second, “He has turned away our enemies. He has destroyed the hellish power of Satan and of death. Death has been conquered and lost its sting. There is now a divine hand to reach out to us in death. Third, He “Is in our midst,” as the prophet Zephaniah puts it. Or, in Paul’s words, “He is near.” He is near in the sense that He is always with us, always offering us the grace we need for whatever situation we’re in. And He is near in the sense that His return is closer than it was yesterday. We’re nearer today to going home than we were last year or five years ago or ten years ago. And these truths that forgiveness is there for the asking, that death’s power has been destroyed, and that God is both with us now, no matter the situation and will bring us home if we stay close is the cause of our joy, that nothing, not anxiety, not distress, not persecution, not the sword, and not even a starvation bunker in Auschwitz, can shake.
As we draw nearer to Christmas, may God help us all better understand what He has done for us. And may our joy draw others to Him.
Pax et Bonum,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley