Defiant Requiem

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Revelation 21:1-6

I have read Revelation 21:1-6 at numerous funerals, and have done so as tenderly as I could for the sake of those who were grieving. In that setting, I believe that was the right tone of comfort and hope. But this passage is far from a lullaby. Other tones ring out from these words, which is why it is important we read them on occasions other than funerals.

John’s vision in chapter 21 is of the ultimate purpose of God for all creation. That victory does not come lightly or easily. The vision cannot be sanitized. Souls under the altar of those who have been slain (ch. 6); the beast allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them (ch. 13); the souls of those who had been beheaded (ch. 20) – there is much agony and violence and terror before “a new heaven and a new earth” appear.

For the last several months, my wife and I have been involved in an amazing project called ‘Defiant Requiem.’ We knew nothing about the story, how between 1941 and 1944, a young Czech composer named Rafael Schacter led fellow prisoners at the Nazi concentration camp at Terezen in 16 performances of Verdi’s Requiem. Schacter taught the singers the Requiem by rote from a single score. The day after the first performance, nearly half of the 150 choir members were sent to Auschwitz. Schacter recruited and taught other singers for 15 additional performances, until he himself died on a forced march to Auschwitz in 1944.

American Maestro Murry Sidlin learned of this story in 1994, and it has shaped the direction of his life. He became the creator of Defiant Requiem Foundation, whose musical performances and education have raised over $10 million in funding for Survivors and Holocaust education. The centerpiece of the Foundation’s work is a performance of Verdi’s Requiem, interspersed with video testimonials and narration of some of the original singers at Terezen.

And so, on June 1, Maestro Sidlin and four renowned soloists will come here for the 49th performance of the Defiant Requiem. Sidlin will conduct the Asheville Symphony, and Jane and I will join other area singers, Jew and Gentile, in Asheville’s version of “Voices of Terezen Remembrance.”

The requiem mass itself provides a primer on reading Revelation. On the one hand, life and death are held in the hands of a just and searching God who will bring to defeat and ruin every power that rages against what is good and true. This is a far cry from the current de-historicized and privatized “I am a thousand winds that blow” understanding of death

On the other hand, this Pre-Vatican II mass (the ‘Dies Irae’ was removed from the mass for the dead in 1970) relishes the redemptive violence by which God punishes evildoers and torments the damned. Such violence may fit well into the Left-Behind-Industrial-Complex, but it raises huge questions about the ways of the God revealed by ‘the slaughtered Lamb,’ the name for Jesus used 28 times in Revelation.

To hear this requiem mass from the perspective of the Terezen choir brings out, with devastating irony, both the truth and the self-deception.

The Asheville performance is being sponsored by Carolina Jews for Justice and rehearsals are held at the Jewish Community Center. The increased interaction and the hospitality we have received from our hosts have made me wonder anew about the unimaginable heights and depths of ‘new heaven and new earth.’ Certainly the kind of triumphalistic Christian theology that bifurcates this complex world into simplistic categories of ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’ is a direct disregard of Paul’s words in Romans 11:18. But neither a casual ‘hey, it’s all the same thing,’ nor discussions about ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity,’ however earnest and well-intentioned, are weighty enough in the face of the forces of hate and fear that swirl around us.

Jewish scholar and Rabbi Michael Goldberg says the main issue has to do with ‘master stories’ (Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight). The way forward, he says, is neither to argue doctrine nor tiptoe around on the polite surface. Rather, the purpose is for Jews and Christians to live out their master stories. For Jews, he claims, the master story is the Exodus, and for Christians the master story is the Passion-Resurrection of Jesus.

Goldberg insists that master stories are not fables from which we draw the ‘point’ or ‘the moral’ or ‘the meaning,’ and then discard the story. The story IS the meaning:
But for Jews whose moral vision has been trained by the Exodus master story, keeping their own past oppression fresh in mind demands being ever mindful…. That ethic toward outsiders comes neither from some abstract categorical imperative nor from some liberal appeal to tolerance, but from a recollection of Israel’s own storied experience: ‘You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ (Ex. 22:20).

These foundational stories generate practices, says Goldberg, and at a deep level, both Judaism and Christianity seem constantly to retell their master stories by continually reenacting them through ritual and liturgy.

We have seen this recently in a powerful way. On the last day of Passover, a gunman entered Poway synagogue in San Diego County. Rabbi Yisrael Goldstein came face-to-face with the murderer and was himself wounded. Shortly afterwards on the sidewalk outside, the Rabbi, having had both index fingers blown off, quoted passages from the Passover Seder liturgy. “I have said that line hundreds of times in my life,” he remarked. “But I have never felt the truth of it more that I did there.”

Later Rabbi Goldstein said, “I used to sing a song to my children, a song my father sang to me when I was a child. “Hashem is here,’ I would sing, using a Hebrew name for God, pointing my right index finger to the sky. ‘Hashem is there,’ I would sing, pointing to my right and left. ‘Hashem is truly everywhere.’ That finger I would use to point out God’s omnipresence was taken from me. I pray that my missing finger serves as a constant reminder to me. A reminder that every single human being is created in the image of God; a reminder that I am part of a people that has survived the worst destruction and will always endure.”

A missing index finger that still points to the omnipresence of God…

So, fellow Christians, what will be our witness, our rituals, our practices as we live out of and into our master story of a crucified and risen Lord who makes all things new?

2 Responses to “Defiant Requiem”

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  1. Susan Adams says:

    Jim, this is fascinating and truly encouraging. Thank you for sharing this story with us.

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