1st April, 2018 – Easter Day
In 1938 a man named Nicholas Winton was going on a skiing trip in Switzerland. His trip happened to coincide with Kristallnacht, the night of unprecedented violence against Jewish people residing in Germany. Jewish homes were looted, businesses, schools and hospitals were destroyed. People were murdered and tens of thousands were arrested and sent to concentration camps.
Hearing the news, Nicholas Winton cancelled his skiing trip and instead went to stay with friends in Prague. It was clear that the Jewish community in Czechoslovakia would be the next to experience such treatment. Jewish families were desperate to get their children out. At that time the British government agreed to allow unrestricted immigration of refugee Jewish children. All that was required for each child was 50 pounds and a home in which they could stay.
Nicholas Winton set up an office in a hotel dining room and began making arrangements for children to escape to Britain. He located funding, organised transport and found families willing to care for a refuges child. His efforts resulted in saving the lives of 669 children who would have perished. We can say this with certainty, because all of the parents of those children were killed in concentration camps.
The strange part of this story is that Nicholas Winton never spoke to anyone about what he had done. You see, he felt deeply ashamed of himself, because he believed that with more time and thought he might have been able to save more children. As the realities of the holocaust became known, Nicholas became increasingly aware of how little he had done. So his story remained a secret for more than forty years.
That was until one day in 1988 Nicholas’s wife found a notebook in their attic. It listed the names and addresses of all the children he helped relocate to Britain. It was only when she asked her husband what the notebook was for that he told her the story of his war time experience.
It was later that year that Nicholas was in the audience of a television program being recorded by the BBC. To his surprise, the host of the show began to tell the story of his actions and how he had saved the lives of so many children. He was even more surprised to discover that the woman in her 50’s sitting next to him was one of the children he had helped escape.
It was a tearful reunion as the woman expressed her gratitude for what he had done, exclaiming that she owed him her life. It was at this point that the host of the show asked if there were any other people there who owed their life to Nicholas Winton. At that point every member of the audience stood up. Suddenly Nicholas was able to see the vast impact he had made on the world. Despite his own regrets, in that moment he was upheld by a vast group of people as the hero he truly was. It was a transformational moment in his life, when he was able to see clearly what he had done and that the significance of his actions was so much greater than he ever realised.
Deep within all of us is a desire to be truly known by others and to be loved as the person we really are. Often, we have a sense that people don’t fully understand us, or misinterpret us, or at some level just don’t get what we are all about. Sometimes there are parts of us that we keep hidden, the parts we are ashamed of, or that we think are unlovable. And sometimes we are just too caught up in our own doubts and self-criticism to realise that we are valued and loved by others.
The promise of resurrection is the idea that even when something has come to a seemingly complete end, that new life can spring up in surprising and powerful ways. The story of Nicholas Winton is a story of resurrection. Not only is his story about how his actions literally enabled the lives of a number of children and their children and their children, his story is also one of personal resurrection. That part of him which focussed on what he wasn’t able to do, was reborn in the face of what he had done. His sense of shame at what he hadn’t done was lifted from him when a group of people confronted his self assessment with a very different reality. They saw in him something he was not able to see in himself. But better still, they shared that with him and changed his life in the process.
This deeper experience of resurrection is present in the Gospel story we read this morning. On this occasion I am not speaking of the resurrection of Jesus, but rather of the resurrection of Mary Magdalene.
A close reading of the story shows us that Mary, having been left at the tomb by the other disciples who we are told went home, is still grieving for Jesus. She stands at the tomb crying, which is a fair given all that had taken place in the days before. And to top things off, her friends body is now missing.
And so it is that when she is greeted by the risen Christ, trapped within her own overwhelming feelings of grief and confusion, Mary cannot recognise what is right before her. That is until Jesus speaks her name. There is something incredibly significant in the biblical tradition about being called by your name. To be addressed in this way implies that we are deeply and truly known and loved by another being. By naming Mary, Jesus is conveying a profound acceptance and love for her, which includes every part of who she is. Jesus knows and accepts Mary completely, and when he shares this with her by simply saying her name, she is suddenly able to see the risen Christ.
It is no small thing that the first act of the risen Christ is to convey to someone that they are deeply understood and profoundly loved. It was not just a message for Mary, but for all of us. Despite the frailty of human relationships, that we often misunderstand or misinterpret each other, and despite our own feelings of isolation or not being good enough, Christ sees us as we truly are. But more than that, Christ not only sees us, but loves us. No matter what others say about us, or what we say about ourselves, we are loved. Thanks be to God. Amen.
– Reverend Richard Bonifant