“These are the ones who have survived the time of great distress.”
This is one of the most powerful lines in the second reading for Good Shepherd Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. In this reading from the book of Revelation (chapter 7), evil exists only as something that has been eliminated through the victory of Christ, through the triumph of the blood of the Lamb….
Evil no longer has any power to destroy God’s people….
A vast multitude of women and men from every nation, race, people, and tongue worship the One who sits on the throne. They fear the powers of evil no longer, for they have survived the time of great distress and are now shepherded by the Lamb who wipes every tear from their eyes….
Nothing but the triumph of love….
In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand” (Jn. 10:28).
On August 1, 1943, eleven sisters of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth stood in a secluded spot in the woods about 3 miles from Nowogródek, located in what is now central Belarus. The town had been occupied by the German army since 1941. The sisters were an integral part of the town and had helped the community find hope and faith through the days of “distress” in which half of the population had been murdered because they were Jews. Now, the sisters huddled around a mass grave.
When the women of the town had turned to the sisters to pray for the release of their husbands and sons who had been arrested and slated for execution, the sisters gathered to discuss what they could do. Unanimously they had expressed their desire to offer their lives in sacrifice for the prisoners.
The Superior of the community, Sister Maria Stella, C.S.F.N., shared the community’s decision with their local pastor, Father Zienkiewicz, telling him: “My God, if sacrifice of life is needed, accept it from us and spare those who have families. We are even praying for this intention.” Shortly thereafter, the plan for the execution of the prisoners was changed to deportation to work camps in Germany, while some were released.
When the life of their local pastor was threatened, the sisters renewed the offering of their lives: “There is a greater need for a priest on this earth than for us. We pray that God will take us in his place, if sacrifice of life is needed.”
The youngest sister, Sister M. Boromea, was just twenty-six. The oldest sister and superior, Sister M. Stella of the Blessed Sacrament, was fifty-four. With one heart and soul the eleven young religious now stood together awaiting their death. The Lord had accepted their sacrifice. They, like Christ himself, the Lamb upon the Throne, had offered their lives for their brothers and sisters. As they were gunned down by the Gestapo and buried in a common grave, they had indeed “survived the time of great distress” because they had loved others more than preserving their own life. No power of evil, no weapon on this earth, could take them from Jesus’ hand. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.”
Declared martyrs by Pope John Paul, he said of them at their beatification in 2000, “Together and unanimously they offered their lives to God, asking in exchange that the lives of the mothers and fathers of families and that of the local pastor be spared. The Lord graciously accepted their sacrifice and, we believe, abundantly rewarded them in his glory.”
Friends, we all face the power of destruction in our lives. We may face it in personal wounds, our own or those of loved ones, and in the powers of evil set loose in the world. These eleven martyrs teach us four important things:
- We will not perish. God has us in his hands. Nothing and no one can take us out of his hands.
- Only love is victorious, a love modeled on the self-giving heart of the Shepherd. No tanks can destroy that love.
- Our lives unfold in the time of great distress, but we do not need to fear what is happening around us because of who is in us.
- No matter the power of destruction that rages in our times, we need to wash our robes and make them white in the blood of the Lamb, and we too will stand before the throne and before the Lamb where God will wipe away every tear from our eyes, because death and evil at last will be no more.