There’s a moment in the liturgy of Baptism when we are asked to reject Satan, and all his works, and all his empty promises. Just before Christ claims us, the church asks us to recognize evil for what it is: something ugly and stupid, something which separates us from ourselves.
Primo Levi does the same in his memoire of Auschwitz, If This Is a Man. He favors description over denunciation, knowing that an accurate account of what happened there needs no moralizing. The young partisan was a chemist by training, which explains both his prose style and his survival.
Levi was one of seven inmates chosen to work in a chemical lab. His description of the doctor, who examines the suitability of the Italian and his companions for the work, is as blunt as the baptismal rite. It simply declares evil to be something ugly and stupid, something which separates us from ourselves.
We have entered. There is only Doktor Pannwitz; Alex, cap in hand, speaks to him in an undertone: “…an Italian, has been in the Lager only three months, already half kaputt…Er sagt er ist Chemiker…” But he, Alex, apparently has his reservations on the subject.Alex is dismissed in a few words and set aside, and I feel like Oedipus, in front of the Sphinx. My ideas are clear, and I am aware even at this moment that the stakes are high; yet I feel a mad desire to disappear, to avoid the test.Pannwitz is tall, thin, blond: he has the eyes, the hair, and the nose that all Germans ought to have, and sits formidably behind an elaborate desk. I, Häftling 174517, stand in his office, which is a real office, shining, clean, and orderly, and it seems to me that I would leave a dirty stain if I were to touch anything.When he finished writing, he raised his eyes and looked at me.Since that day, I have thought about Doktor Pannwitz many times and in many ways. I have asked myself about his inner workings as a man; how he filled his time, outside the Polymerization Department and his Indo-Germanic conscience. Above all, when I was once more a free man, I wanted to meet him again, not out of spirit of revenge but merely out of my curiosity about the human soul.Because that look did not pass between two men; and if I knew how to explain fully the nature of that look, exchanged as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds, I would also be able to explain the essence of the great insanity of the Third Reich (100-101).
What a profound indictment: “that look did not pass between two men.” It was exchanged “as if through the glass wall of an aquarium between two beings who inhabit different worlds.” Sin is ugly and stupid. It separates us from ourselves. It makes “a dirty stain” of the human.
This is a day for harsh action and blunt declarations. Ashes on the forehead with the words, “Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” The baptismal liturgy of Easter begins on Ash Wednesday. This is the day we’re asked to recognize our lives of sin for what they are: ugly, stupid, divisive.
Today we return, seeking to hear again the words of life. Genesis tells us that “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (1:31). Saint John tell us that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life” (3:16).
What we all thought and said of the Germans could be felt at that moment, in an immediate manner. The brain that governed those blue eyes and those manicured hands said, “This something in front of me belongs to a species that it is obviously right to suppress. In this particular case, one has first to make sure that it does not contain some useful element.” And in my head, like seeds in an empty pumpkin: “Blue eyes and fair hair are essentially wicked. No communication possible I am a specialist in mining chemistry. I am a specialist in organic synthesis. I am a specialist….” (101).
Sin is ugly. Sin is stupid. Sin separates one human from another. Sin makes us, to some extent, incomprehensible to each other, yet when we can’t see the human in others, we lose it in ourselves.
Now, in this year of mercy, God condemns sin, exposes it for what it is. Today in ashes God gathers. Today begins the Easter journey home, back to Baptism.
Joel 2: 12-18 2 Corinthians 5: 20-6:2 Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18