Easter Oration delivered at Melbourne Grammar School by the Dean of Melbourne, the Very Revd Dr Andreas Loewe, on Wednesday in Holy Week 2023
406 days ago, Russia invaded Ukraine, setting off a war in the heart of Europe that has embroiled the entire world. Last Sunday, I walked alongside Ukrainian Christians at the Palm Sunday Rally for Refugees. There is a large Ukrainian community here in Melbourne, and I joined Bishop Mykola Bychok of the Ukrainian Catholic Church and other faith leaders in leading the rally through the streets of the CBD. ‘The war in Ukraine has led to 8 million people being made refugees’, Bishop Mykola told the thousands of people attending the Palm Sunday Rally. ‘Four million are refugees in our own country, Ukraine. Another four have fled to places as far away as Australia, Canada and South America’. More people than live in our state have been made homeless and fled the war.
Earlier, I had asked another Ukrainian priest what it is that we can do here in Australia now that the war in his homeland is in its second year. ‘Pray for an end to the war’, Fr Andrej told me: ‘work for peace in the world, and tell the truth about the war in Ukraine’. These three actions—prayer and worship, working and advocating, and truth telling—are central to our lives as followers of Jesus, and will sustain us in times of conflict such as these.
During Holy Week and Easter, we follow Jesus on the journey to the cross in real time. Day by day we follow more closely to the place of his suffering that is our salvation. For Christians, the cross is not the end of our journeys. Rather it stands at the beginning of our walk with Christ. One of my heroes of the faith, the German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer, put it this way: ‘The cross is not the terrible end of a happy, pious life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of our community with Jesus Christ’. For those of you who do not yet know about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, let me give a brief introduction. A charismatic academic theologian and pastor, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was well known for his direct, persuasive writings about what it meant for ordinary people to follow Jesus. Actively opposed to the rise of Fascism in Germany from its earliest days, he was one of the leaders of a group of over 7,000 pastors who, in 1934, broke away from the German Protestant church in protest of Nazi anti-Semitic laws that required all state employees, including pastors, to be ‘Aryan’. Bonhoeffer worked to train pastors for this illegal church, and worked to create communities of people who would understand what it means to follow Christ in times of conflict.
Because of his resistance, Bonhoeffer lost his lectureship, his freedom to broadcast, publish or speak in public. Over the coming years, he was sent out of the country for his own safety multiple times. And yet he chose to return and join his family in actively resisting Nazism. His brother-in-law Hans von Dohnanyi recruited him into a group of double agents, The Canaris Group, led by none other than the head of the German military intelligence, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris. Bonhoeffer committed to truth telling by smuggling evidence of Hitler’s war crimes out to Allied countries, while his brother-in- Hans was personally involved in a number of attempts to assassinate Hitler. The Canaris Group helped smuggle Jews to safety from Germany and occupied territories.
It was sending money to support Jewish refugees they had helped reach Switzerland, that led to the whole Canaris Group being arrested in 1943. Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. First in Tegel Prison, then in a cell under the Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, and later in Buchenwald concentration camp. In 1944, he was tried late at night, without witnesses, before a drumhead court-martial hastily set up in a laundry in Flossenbürg concentration camp. The documents about the failed ‘20 July Plot’ to kill Hitler had been found. In the final weeks of the war, Hitler personally demanded the liquidation of the entire Canaris Group. On 9 April 1944, three weeks before Germany’s total surrender, Admiral Canaris, his deputy General Oster and Bonhoeffer were humiliated, stripped and hanged on a butchers’ hook. Some witnesses say Bonhoeffer’s death took six hours. His brother-in-law Hans died the same day, in Sachsenhausen Camp. This year, their anniversary of death falls on Easter Day.
‘The cross stands at the beginning of our community with Jesus Christ’, Bonhoeffer tells and adds: ‘the cross is laid on each Christian’. ‘In each case’, Bonhoeffer says, ‘it is the one cross’—the cross of Christ, on which he suffered and died on Good Friday, and over which he triumphed at Easter. When we witness to Christ through our words and actions, we bring Christ to the world, carry an inestimable gift to others. We witness to the One who carries our cross by carrying one another’s burdens. By telling the truth of the suffering and injustices others face, by advocating and fighting on their behalf, and by praying for and with them.
Telling the truth is one of the most powerful things a Christian can do. Last Sunday, faith and political leaders from across our state, Muslims, Christians, Jews, people from all walks of life, came together in calling on our government to give refugees a fair go. Holding nations accountable for their actions by speaking out, making the state responsible for what it does, is what Christians are called to do in times of conflict. Telling the truth, time after time, even against hope, even when we are wearied by the effort, will ultimately win out. Prophetic truth telling is what brought down Apartheid in South Africa and, here in Australia, led to the release the refugees on Nauru and the Park Hotel in Carlton, and to the opening of a visa track for refugees on temporary protection visas. Telling the truth about the sins of the past brought reconciliation in South Africa and, I hope, will be what also will lead to greater justice for First Nations people here in Australia.
Working for peace in the world, likewise, is an essential part of Christian discipleship. Commenting on Christian living under the repressive Nazi regime, Bonhoeffer said: ‘Where the world despises other members of the Christian family, Christians will love and serve them. If the world does violence to them, Christians will help them and provide them relief’. The outpouring of practical support by the nations neighbouring Ukraine, the unheard-of support of the world-wide community, is one way of showing forth the values of Christian living in times of conflict. If the ‘world’ feels too big for you, your local community and government is tangible and knowable. Supporting community organisations working with refugees, or even attending rallies like last Sunday’s are good ways in which each of one of us can show practical support. (Xavier College had a group at the March. I’d be delighted to welcome a group from Melbourne Grammar next year).
Working for peace in the world means writing to our political representatives; advocating for swifter, more generous action in settling those displaced from war zones. You may never receive an answer back from your MP, but where many express the same concern, MPs do take note. In this way, we work regardless of the many people who seek to make faith irrelevant in modern society, and regardless of the many people, perhaps even a majority, who slumber when others suffer. This is what heroes of our faith like Bonhoeffer did in the 1930s and 1940s, and it is what we are called to do as we face the same challenges today.
All these actions—telling the truth and working for peace—are underpinned by prayer. Prayer is what unites us with Christ and resources our resolve. Prayer reflects the inward reality of faith to our world. By our prayer and worship this Holy Week and Easter we, too, can help others gain glimpses of this eternal reality. If you are already committed to being part of a worshipping community, do join its Easter celebrations. If not, then please join one or, of course, come to your Cathedral this Easter.
It is by our own actions that we can shine some of the light of the resurrection in our world. When we live as disciples in this world—by our prayer, by working for peace and by telling the truth to power—Jesus himself will help us bear our burdens of faith-filled living and sacrificial action in this world. In the same way that Jesus’ disciples witness to his deeds of liberating power, so Jesus himself will witness to us in the time of our trial and suffering.
This is what celebrating Holy Week and Easter, what faithful following of Jesus in times of conflict means: to stand by Christ in his suffering in the trust that, by doing so, we will also share his victory. Stand with him in the darkness of Good Friday in the trust that, by doing so, we will shed the brilliance of his resurrection light into the dark places of our world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer assures us that our Easter celebration becomes real when we witness to Christ in this world. Because Jesus will bear witness for us in the world to come: ‘Those who have held onto Jesus in this life will find that Jesus will hold onto them in eternity’, Bonhoeffer assures us. ‘Easter reveals to us the entire glory and power of God. Just as God raised Jesus in inexpressible power, so too will he lead his people from death to life. This is where we look in hope today’.
I wish you all a blessed Holy Week and a happy Easter.
Andreas Loewe and Katherine Firth have published Journeying with Bonhoeffer: Six Steps on the Way of Discipleship, on which the biographical summary is based.
Image attribution: Dietrich Bonhoeffer with children preparing for confirmation (Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R0211-316 / CC-BY-SA 3.0)