Distance from others, isolation, loneliness are the themes of the times; they are themes that offer insights into the experiences of Holy Week.
To speak and to have no-one who hears what you are saying must create one of the most profound senses of isolation. As someone who has been guilty of not hearing people, as someone who has often only realised long after the moment what it was that someone was trying to say, I could never presume to judge others when they seem to have been obtuse, when they have not heard what was being said to them.
Reading the account of the Last Supper, the disciples seem not to hear what Jesus is saying to them. When he talks about his body being broken and his blood being shed, they seem to fail to appreciate the significance of his words. If they had listened to him, would they have been so surprised at how events unfolded?
In the twenty-second chapter of Saint Luke, Jesus instructs his disciples as to how he is to be remembered:
“He took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”
Remembering those words of Jesus Sunday by Sunday, remembering the failure of the disciples to listen to him, remembering the terrible sense of isolation that overcomes Jesus when he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane to await his arrest, Christians might have shown greater determination to hear the voice of the isolated. Remembering the loneliness of Jesus in the dark hours of that Friday morning, Christians might have shown a willingness to listen to those who stand alone.
Perhaps it has always been easier to be deaf to isolated voices, deaf to those who stand alone, because it may mean standing alongside people who are unpopular. Jesus became isolated because he stood against the powers and the authorities of his time, following him would bring the disciples their own moments of isolation.
In the centuries since, Christians have too often remained deaf to isolated voices. Pastor Martin Niemoller, who was imprisoned in a concentration camp because of his opposition to the Nazis, acknowledged his failure to hear the voices of those who stood alone:
When the Nazis came for the communists,
I remained silent;
I was not a communist.
When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.
When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
I was not a trade unionist.
When they came for the Jews,
I remained silent;
I wasn’t a Jew.
When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.
Should the days of Nazi Germany seem distant, an unwillingness to hear cries for help has persisted. In the 1990s, it was voices in Rwanda which went unheard.
This week marks the anniversary of the beginning of 1994 genocide in Rwanda and writer Philip Gourevitch captures the individual horror of the Hundred Days. Gourevitch’s book tells of a group of Pentecostal pastors and their families who were among those taken captive, and who wrote appealing for help in unambiguous terms. The letter stated in blunt terms, to anyone who might have listened, “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” Their appeal for help went unanswered, their prayers for safety were in vain, they were all massacred by genocidaires.
As the words of Jesus at the Last Supper are recalled, as his sense of isolation in Gethsemane is recalled, Christians everywhere should ask, whose are the voices who are not heard?