I am reading the bestselling novel The Book Thief written by Australian author Markus Zusak. The book had me from the opening words. It is narrated by Death (a very interesting approach), set in Nazi Germany, and is about the redemptive power of words.
The chapter I read yesterday was entitled “Hitler’s Birthday, 1940.” It tells the story of how the young heroine of the story attended a book burning held in honor of the Führer’s birthday and ended up rescuing a book from the ashes. Hidden in her Hitler youth jacket, the book, still hot from the fire, burns her flesh.
The date was April 20. I thought to myself, “That is Easter!” When the author wrote this novel a decade ago, he never could have known that I would be reading this chapter in 2014 as Lent begins. I have Easter on my mind, but this book has forced me to put it in the context of the arch-villain of the twentieth century.
Führer means leader. Everything depends on whom you follow. The first hymn I will sing on Easter morning will include the words “Soar we now where Christ has led, Alleluia! Following our exalted Head, Alleluia!”
Another character in the story, a young boy, covers himself with ashes and runs around a track celebrating Jesse Owen’s Olympic victory in 1936 in Berlin. Ashes, ashes everywhere.
Thinking of book-burnings and the Holocaust on Ash Wednesday is a powerful experience. It brings Dietrich Bonhoeffer to mind. He was the Lutheran pastor executed in Germany for his role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. Next month is also the anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s death.
In his Letters & Papers From Prison, Bonhoeffer writes, “Good Friday and Easter free us to think about other things far beyond our own personal fate, about the ultimate meaning of all life, suffering, and events; and we lay hold of a great hope.”
We have a great hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. But evil is still with us. It did not die in Hitler’s bunker. The headlines inform us that innocents are still being slaughtered. Ethnic, tribal, and racial hatred still thrives. The forces that crucified Jesus still kill the righteous.
In a world where Death narrates the news, we remember the words of the apostle Paul. “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting? Now the sting of death is sin: and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who hath given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”