On a recent bitterly cold day I was trudging around the internment camp of Auschwitz, Poland, listening to my guide explain this building and that, when I came across a plaque that caught my attention. The plaque was affixed to the side of the wall of one of the buildings that housed the inmates. It marked the courageous life of one man by the name of Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest.
The story of Kolbe is one I will not forget quickly. After an alleged escape attempt by a prisoner of the camp, the inmates were assembled and from them 10 men were selected for death by starvation. The random brutality of this response was designed to supress any fleeting ideal of escape that may have surfaced in the minds of the imprisoned men.
One of the chosen ten began to break down in tears as the realisation of his fate became apparent to him. At this point Kolbe steps forward from the ranks and offers himself in the place of his fellow inmate. Laughing, the camp’s officers agree.
Locked in a room underground, Kolbe and the 9 other men are left to slowly starve to death.
After the war was over, the camps liberated and the few inmates still alive rescued, one man by the name of Franciszek Gajowniczek limped away from Auschwitz to begin the rest of his life. His life had been spared by the selfless act of the polish priest, Kolbe, who a few years earlier offered himself in Gajowniczek’s place.
Kolbe’s act became the ‘salvation’ moment of Franciszek’s life, who incidentally went on to live to the ripe old age of 95. His entire future existence after Auschwitz was owed to one man, Maximilian Kolbe.
When Jesus Christ was nailed to a cross to pay the price for a crime he didn’t commit, what was happening had far deeper significance than the people murdering him knew at the time. The Romans had killed a man entirely unaware of the part that they played in the greatest selfless act the universe has ever witnessed.
When Jesus died, the pivotal point in all of human existence was permanently established. Jesus’ death was the salvation moment for not just one internment prisoner, but for the entire world imprisoned by sin and without hope.
God’s love and justice met at the cross. God himself took our place and paid for our mistakes and the mess of the world. Justice demanded due payment and as we faltered Jesus stepped forward and took our place, freeing us to life.
Established in History
You can visit Auschwitz today, as I did, and find the plaque honouring Maximilian’s life. You too can visit the small, dark cell where he was starved and murdered, as Gajowniczek did every year after his release. You can read the accounts of the fellow inmates and others at the camp published for the world to examine.
Maximilian’s story is grounded in history. His exemplary life and death still inspire many today.
So too Jesus’ exemplary life and death reach out to us from history to ask us to learn from his story. Attested to by reliable eye-witness accounts, preserved through written records for generations after to examine, the stories of Jesus Christ reach out to us today and leave us with a question to answer.
Maximilian died and we celebrate him for a hero. We can ask why he did what he did but we ask that question from the comfort of our own detached lives, in the knowledge that the benefit from the act was spent on one man.
But with Jesus the benefit is yet to be determined. Jesus’ story isn’t merely inspiring, a courageous tale of an act of wonderful human selflessness. That’s because the story of Jesus’ life and death isn’t over. We don’t observe it neatly wrapped, framed, and simply restricted to the historical annuls.
When we read of the life and death of Jesus we become aware that we are immediately and inescapably involved in the story. Jesus died that all people would be liberated from their mess and the mess of the world. The benefit of his ultimate selfless act isn’t reserved for one man alone but open to all of us.
Jesus stepped forward, in front of us, to take our place, and set us free. The great selfless act has happened and the freedom that has been bought at great price is offered to you now. The only question now left is: of what benefit is his sacrifice to you?