I’ll begin with a wartime Christmas story.
Late in 1942, the German Sixth Army reached the pivotal city of Stalingrad on the Eastern Front. Both sides knew that they must not lose the fight. Winter was setting in, but Hitler decreed that the city had to be taken regardless of cost. The war in Europe seemed to hinge on the fate of Stalingrad. By November the German army was surrounded in what was one of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles in history. Starving people fled in all directions from the devastated city. Around a half a million Russians and 147,000 Germans were lost. Many froze to death or starved in that icy hell.
Dr Kurt Reuber was a German military surgeon with the 6th Army. He was also a Lutheran Pastor and a gifted artist who deeply opposed Hitler’s regime but was conscripted as a medic. He loved and respected the Russian people and felt great shame at what his army was doing to them. He drew pictures of local people and sent them back to Germany.
On Christmas Eve 1942, while working all the hours God sent in a makeshift operating theatre somewhere in Stalingrad, Reuber gathered a group of fellow soldiers for a Christmas service in an underground bunker: no Christmas tree or candles, no presents or decorations. The service was nothing less than an act of defiant hope flying in the face of horrifying reality.
On the back of a captured Soviet military map Reuber had drawn an icon, now known as the Stalingrad Madonna which he somehow attached to the frozen earthy wall of the bunker. He based the image on a Russian mother he saw, who like Mary, sheltered her vulnerable child in the midst of unspeakable suffering.
After a short reading from Luke’s gospel, against the noise of the battle above, the small, beleaguered congregation sang:
Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright
Round yon virgin mother and child
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
Sleep in heavenly peace….
With the earth trembling as bombs pounded the city, and gunfire all around, it was as powerful a declaration of defiant hope as could be imagined. The icon on the back of a map of that devastated land was its own Christmas sermon. Around the icon, Reuber wrote the words ‘Light – Life – Love; in the cauldron of Stalingrad; Christmas 1942.’ There could be no more poignant protest at the hellish reality of war. It was a sign of heavenly light and hope in a dark place, and a symbol of every mother’s gift of life amid destruction; a reminder that love is stronger than death.
The scene could be repeated today in dozens of places. The icon could be the Madonna of Palestine, the Madonna of Myonmar; it could be the Madonna of Syria or Iraq, of Somalia or Yeman or…you name it.
A few weeks after Reuber’s Christmas service, the surviving German troops surrendered contrary to Hitler’s orders. Two-thirds of them died in Soviet captivity; among them Dr Kurt Reuber who fell ill with typhus and perished. But the Stalingrad Madonna survived. A Red Cross nurse on the last ambulance to fly out of the besieged city took the Madonna back to Germany where it became a national icon and eventually found its place in West Berlin’s famous Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church. Pat and I saw it there a while back, entranced by its simplicity and beauty.
In 1990, the Bishop of Berlin brought a replica of the icon as a gift to Coventry Cathedral on the 50th anniversary of the Coventry blitz. In the presence of Reuber’s daughter, together with the Bishop of Coventry joined the Bishop of Berlin and the Archbishop of Stalingrad in consecrating a new chapel with its message of life and love – now the Millennium Chapel of the Stalingrad Madonna. Visitors are invited to sit and contemplate, to pray for peace, to kindle stubborn hope for our world, and in this mother and child glimpse the mystery of a world transformed by love.
Things change when someone has the imagination to re-envisage their reality. In his little book Images of Hope, William Lynch says that people in sorrow or depression suffer an impoverishment of imagination. They simply can’t imagine a world different from the one in which they are locked. Along similar lines, the literary critic, Hugh Kenner, once wrote: ‘Whoever can give people better stories than the ones they live by is like the priest in whose hands common bread and wine become capable of feeding the very soul.’
This, in fact, is what faith amounts to: a reimagining…a ‘what if’: what if things were different….what if I could feel differently about things…about people…what if I decided to do something to make that difference. Faith isn’t an abstract belief in six impossible things before breakfast; a creed is not faith; faith is the defiant act of reimagining… asking what if…why not…how can I help to make this happen?
Our world suffers from a loss of faith, an impoverishment of imagination – people struggle to conceive that things could be different: things in the world at large, things in their own experience. It feels very difficult – just about impossible – to envisage anything beyond living in a war zone, an occupied territory, or having no home to go to, or living with overwhelming disappointment or with some illness or disability or the unspeakable grief of losing a loved one.
This is what I love about St Ethelburga’s: it is itself a creation of reimagination. Out of the ashes of an IRA bomb, Bishop Richard envisaged a different reality: that of a victim of violence and brutality becoming a sign and an instrument of peace and reconciliation.
Finally, I ask you to spend a few moments contemplating the Stalingrad Madonna. It’s a wonderful image drawn, believe it or not, with a piece of coal which was all Karl Reuber had to hand. Yet when his comrades entered the bunker on Christmas Eve and saw it for the first time, they stood in silent awe, as if in the presence of Mary herself and her child, an image which somehow filled that dark space.
It pictures a mother and child, heads leaned into each other, wrapped in the hood of the garment, which together with the mother’s arm cradling the child seems to form a heart-shape around them. It is a sublime image of warmth and serenity, of security and mother-love. The words from John’s gospel: Light – Life – Love (in the cauldron of Stalingrad) articulate the defiant hope pictured.
It’s as if mother and child are enveloped by divine love. An icon is never simply a work of art, never merely a piece to hang in a gallery, but a visual prayer which invites the onlooker to share in the grace being communicated. Like bread and wine in communion, an icon is a sacrament, a means of grace.
The Stalingrad Madonna beckons us to reimagine our world as 2018 draws to a close, to write a different story, discover a different script. Philip Pullman says that ‘After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.’ But we need to tell ourselves new stories – stories of defiant hope, of triumph over despair. The Brazilian theologian and psychoanalyst Rubem Alves says that hope is the insight that imagination is more real and reality less real than it looks.
So, look again at the icon. Caryll Houselander who penned the poem we heard earlier could almost have been looking at the Stalingrad Madonna when she wrote:
The circle of a girl’s arms
have changed the world,
the round and sorrowful world,
to a cradle of God.
She has laid love in his cradle.
In every cradle,
Mary has laid her child.
in each Christ comes
comes Christ from the Mother’s breast…
Into our hands
Mary has given her Child:
heir to the world’s tears,
heir to the world’s toil,
heir to the world’s scars,
heir to the chill dawn
over the ruin of wars.
She has laid love in His cradle,
answering, for us all,
“Be it done unto me”:
The child in the wooden bed,
the light in the dark house,
the life in the failing soul,
the Host in the priest’s hands,
the seed in the hard earth,
the man who is child again-
quiet in the burial bands,
waiting his birth.
Mary, Mother of God,
we are the poor soil
and the dry dust;
we are hard with a cold frost.
Be warmth to the world;
be the thaw,
warm on the cold frost;
be the thaw that melts,
that the tender shoot of Christ,
piercing the hard heart,
flower to a spring in us.
Be hands that are rocking the world
to a kind rhythm of love:
that the incoherence of war
and the chaos of our unrest
be soothed to a lullaby;
and the round and sorrowful world,
in your hands,
the cradle of God.