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The Power of Words

from St Margaret's Episcopal Church, Glasgow, marking Holocaust Memorial
with the Rev Scott Robertson and the Rev Maggie McTernan.
Glasgow Chamber Choir directed by Michael Bawtree.
Organist: Christopher Nickol.
Producer: Mo McCullough.

38 minutes

Last on

Sun 28 Jan 2018 08:10


·         Please note:

This script cannot exactly reflect the transmission, as it was prepared before the service was broadcast. It may include editorial notes prepared by the producer, and minor spelling and other errors that were corrected before the radio broadcast.

It may contain gaps to be filled in at the time so that prayers may reflect the needs of the world, and changes may also be made at the last minute for timing reasons, or to reflect current events. 


I would like to believe in something ... (Copyright material)             (Primo Levi, Collected Poems trans. by Ruth Feldman and Brian Swann
              London: Faber & Faber, 1988)

 Welcome                 Scott

Good morning and welcome to St Margaret’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Newlands on the south side of Glasgow.  I am the Reverend Scott Robertson. The Holocaust Memorial Day theme this year is ‘The power of words’.  The achingly beautiful words we’ve just heard were by Primo Levi, in his poem ’25 February 1944’.

This morning we will reflect on the challenge of what to say in the face of the unspeakable horrors of events encountered in the death camps of World War II, and at other dark moments of human history – in places such as Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.   And when our spoken words fail us we will allow music and song to speak for us.

MUSIC:  Hymn - GOD OF FREEDOM, GOD OF JUSTICE CH4 263  (Tune: Picardy) 

Introduction       Scott

Our prayers are led by the Reverend Maggie McTernan.

Opening Prayer     Maggie

A prayer written by Philip Hall for the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. 

Let us pray

Lord God and Father, we remember before you all those who bear the inner and outer scars of the Holocaust and all acts of genocide. Let them not be overwhelmed by the horrors that engulfed them. Be close to them. Help them to see that you suffer with those who suffer, and that no wickedness can ever extinguish your infinite love. Restrain those who are filled with hatred and use violence to pursue their ends. Change their hearts. May remembrance make us alert to the reality of evil and its deceptive allure. Help us to recognise our own capacity for evil and allow your Spirit to purge it from our beings. Help us also to stand up against evil and oppression, even if that means we have to suffer ourselves. Enable us to defend those who are not strong enough to defend themselves, and to be ready to bring the light of your truth into the dark areas of human experience. Deepen our respect for everything you have made, and help us to share in securing the maximum good of every person who is alive in your world. We ask this in the Name of your Son Jesus Christ, who died for our sins, carries our sorrows, heals our wounds, and is risen for our freedom.   Amen.    

God is love and we are God’s children.
There is no room for fear in love.
We love because God loved us first.
Let us confess our sins in penitence and faith. 

Maggie + All:                     

God our Father, we confess to you

and to our fellow members in the Body of Christ

that we have sinned in thought, word and deed,

and in what we have failed to do.

We are truly sorry.

Forgive us our sins,

and deliver us from the power of evil,

for the sake of your Son who died for us,

Jesus Christ, our Lord.


God, who is both power and love,

forgive us and free us from our sins,

heal and strengthen us by his Spirit,

and raise us to new life in Christ our Lord.





Reading Isaiah 55: 6-13       Colin Fraser

Seek the Lord while he may be found,

    call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
    and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
    and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
    nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so are my ways higher than your ways
    and my thoughts than your thoughts.

10 For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
    and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
    giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11 so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
    it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
    and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

12 For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,
    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
13 Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
    instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
    for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

Reflection 1                        Scott

The powerful words from Levi which we heard at the opening of our service –

“we longed .. to be able to walk together once again free beneath the sun” - reveal in their stark simplicity the cost, the unbearable, enduring cost of the human capacity for terror and destruction.

Because, as the poem reminds us, we are aware of that other vital longing of the human condition – simply to live; and not only that, but simply to believe in something; and not only that but to believe in something beyond. Belief is always belief in the beyond. The belief Primo Levi seeks is a belief in “something beyond the death that undid you.” It’s possible, though unlikely, that Levi had in mind some existence beyond death, a sense of eternal life or heaven. More likely is Levi’s desire to discover in the face of overwhelming meaninglessness some form of meaning. Meaning beyond meaninglessness.

The appalling meaninglessness of the violence meted out on so many, leads us to question the notion of any kind of providence. Levi, himself, once said, “there is Auschwitz, and so there cannot be God.” The force of such words, born of direct experience, cannot be overlooked and they make us pause before opening our mouths to provide some kind of theological defence. As we just heard from the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Isaiah speaks majestically of the fruitful purposes of the word of God. We are told that the word will not return empty but will accomplish that for which it was sent. The Word represents the creative and restorative purposes of God. In the beginning God spoke creation into being and by the same word God heals the afflicted, rescues the lost and comforts the broken-hearted.

The word will do something, it will achieve something. But we must ask what words can we speak in the face of the human blasphemy of events like the Shoah? On a day like today it is telling that Isaiah’s words of comfort follow on from a description of Israel as ‘a people robbed and plundered, all of them are trapped in holes and hidden in prisons; they have become a prey with no-one to rescue, a spoil with no-one to say, “Restore!” (Isaiah 42:22)

Introduction       Maggie

In November 1938, the assassination in Paris of a German diplomat by Herschel Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish refugee, precipitated what became known as "Kristallnacht" where, over several days of violence throughout Germany, synagogues were burned, Jewish homes and businesses attacked and destroyed, thousands of Jews were arrested, and some Jews were stoned or beaten to death.

These terrible events had a profound effect upon the British composer, Michael Tippett, and became the inspiration for his first large-scale dramatic work, Child of our Time. In this work Tippett incorporated American spirituals as a way of expressing the universality of human suffering. We now hear one of these, ‘Go Down Moses’:

GO DOWN MOSES  (Tippett) 

Reflection 2                        Scott

Can we offer a word beyond our words that will speak in the face of the myriad acts of violence which constitute the Holocaust? The answer to that question is, and has to be, a resounding “yes”. For the word that goes beyond words has been and continues to be spoken by the living and the dead – it is this trans-testimony which communicates. We encounter this testimony in the poetry of survivors such as Levi; we witness it in the visual testimony of artists like Morris Kestelman; we hear it in the resonant, echoing, spare space sculpted by events which defy description.

But there is, of course, a sense in which such testimony, powerful and important though it can be, can’t stand alone. A connection has to be made between word and action. The Hebrew word ‘dabar’ means both ‘word’ and ‘act’ and echoes the divine voice which not only speaks but transforms. It signifies the inextricable moral link between our words and our actions. To say nothing is to do nothing. To speak is to act. In the face of horror, of nothingness; of all that would leave us speechless we ask the question: “What shall we now do?”  What can we now do?

One person whose response was to act and speak with tremendous courage was Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor imprisoned and ultimately hanged by the Nazis.  A translation of his words from prison shapes our next hymn, tenderly expressing the hope from which he drew strength in the face of overwhelming cruelty – ‘We turn to God when we are sorely pressed.’

MUSIC:  HYMN - WE TURN TO GOD WHEN WE ARE SORELY PRESSED (Bonhoeffer)   CH4 393 (Tune: Ellers) 

Gospel          John 12: 20-28                   Jenny Whelan

A reading from the Gospel of John, Chapter 12.

20 Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. 21 They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. 23 Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 24 Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. 26 Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honour.27 “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. 28 Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.”

Reflection 3                        Scott

Events such as the Shoah, the Rwandan genocide, Srebrenica or, more recently, the tragedy forced upon the Rohingya people in Myanmar can leave us with a sense of helplessness in the face of seemingly insuperable dark forces. It can foster the temptation to fall into either a paralysing despair or a biting cynicism. Neither of these alternatives offers us any actual help in the presence of evil. Nor does living in denial, evading the truth of evil until it breaks through my own front door.

Evil exists.  It may sometimes appear, as Hannah Arendt famously put it, somewhat banal, but scratching that veneer of banality reveals just how pervasive the desire to alienate and destroy can be. Indeed, we only need to scratch beneath the polite surface of our own hearts to see this alienation at work in ourselves and in our relationships. We find it all too easy to nurse our wrath to keep it warm, as Burns put it.

Introduction                       Scott

Scratching the surface is the business of the poet and we witness this to powerful effect in Carole Satyamurti’s poem, Striking Distance:


Striking Distance               Maggie                               

 Was there one moment when the woman

who’s always lived next door .. (Copyright material)

(Carole Satyamurti, ‘Striking Distance’ in Scanning the Century ed. by Peter Forbes (London: Penguin, 2000), pp. 477-478) 

Reflection 3 Cont’d          Scott

So, what do we do in the face of the evils of the past and the present? We must begin where we are. It takes courage to face the reality of the depths of evil to which human beings can stoop. Any naïve pretence about human goodness won’t do in the face of events like the Holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia or the systematic rape and murder of Darfur. But in the face of this vital realism, despair won’t do either. Despair breeds nothing but cynicism and apathy. Throwing up our hands is easy to do, and is maybe understandable, but it does nothing to come to terms with, let alone alleviate the consequences of evil. In the face of evil, cynicism won’t do, and despair won’t do.

But grief just might. The art of lament is one that has largely been lost in our success-driven, self-helping and self-serving society. So much so that, as we are tempted to achieve ever greater heights of corporate, personal and, dare I say it, spiritual success, the one ultimate among so many competing ultimates that we often choose to ignore is death itself. This denial of death cuts us off from our ability to speak cogently and powerfully before its ever-brooding presence. It has also led us to assume that lament itself is nothing more than a fatalistic submission to whatever comes our way. The stiff upper lip, we believe, is better than the complaint. But it isn’t. This goes beyond the simple need to express what we feel. We need, in the face of evil, in the face of suffering, to grieve, to lament.

Psalm 137 is one of the most profound expressions of lament in the Bible, it was set to music by Antonin Dvorak, and here to sing it this morning is mezzo-soprano, Karen Cargill.


Reflection 3 Cont’d          Scott

That beautiful rendition of the psalm brings us back to the Gospel reading from John that we heard a few moments ago, when we heard Jesus tell us that his soul is troubled. In the face of all that lies before him, Jesus is not simply emoting, he is inhabiting and expressing a tradition of lament which goes beyond mere complaint to place human beings and their suffering in their proper context - and that is before the God who made us. And this lament, this deliberate placing of what the Book of Common Prayer calls ‘the changes and chances of this life’, is what offers us hope. In the face of what lies ahead, Jesus laments and, because of that, he places himself in the hands of God, come what may, and so is not overwhelmed. All of us, whether people of faith or not can, even in the face of unbearable darkness, find ourselves placed in that space which is grounded by the intangible and yet utterly real force of love-filled hope. It is this hope, a hope that can perhaps be called a hope against hope, which forms the basis of our response to evil, and gives us the moral courage to stand against it. 

Intercessions with choral response:                          Maggie

Let us pray for the world and the needs of all people. 

CHOIR A CAPPELLA:  Gibbons Song 46

Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?

The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.  

God, our Creator, the maker of all that is good and pure and true,

We bring to you the world that has been re-made in our image, in all its complexity and chaos.

We pray for those parts of the world which groan under the burden of fear and violence.

We remember those people who have lost so much at the hands of others who exploit and destroy.

We remember refugees and other displaced people, and we pray for those who seek to alleviate their suffering.

CHOIR A CAPPELLA:  Gibbons Song 46

Peace, perfect peace, death shadowing us and ours?
Jesus has vanquished death and all its powers.

God our Redeemer, the one who saves us from ourselves and from all sources of harm,

We pray for those who are persecuted for their faith,

For those who are condemned for their political beliefs

For those whose gender or sexuality makes them a target for repression.

We pray, too for those who perpetrate such hatred and division.

We ask for their hearts to be open to the uniqueness of every person

That their blindness to all forms of corruption may be brought to light and so healed.

That we may together, experience the redemption of humanity.

CHOIR A CAPPELLA:  Gibbons Song 46

Peace, perfect peace, our future all unknown?
Jesus we know, and he is on the throne.

God our Friend, the one who walks beside us even in the darkest times,

We pray for the friendless, for those who are isolated and lonely.

We remember those who have lost loved ones both recently and in the distant past.

We pray for those who suffer still from trauma(s) inflicted years ago.

We pray for those whose memories are haunted by a spirit of fear, violence or abuse.

We pray for the sick in body, mind or spirit

We pray for healing for all who suffer at this time.                      

CHOIR A CAPPELLA:  Gibbons Song 46

Peace, perfect peace, in this dark world of sin?

The blood of Jesus whispers peace within.

And we bring all our prayers together in the words that Jesus taught us when we say:

Our Father in heaven,

hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come,

your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Give us today our daily bread.

Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.

Do not bring us to the time of trial but deliver us from evil.

For the kingdom, the power

and the glory are yours,

now and for ever.


Lord God, our Creator, our Redeemer and our Friend, we ask You to accept these prayers for the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

After deep reflection, hope against hope leads to our assertion that God is love, eternal love.

MUSIC:  HYMN - GOD IS LOVE CH4 123 (Tune: Abbot’s Leigh)  

Blessing                                Scott

The Lord bless you and watch over you,

the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you,

the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace:

and the blessing of God Almighty,

the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,

be upon you and all those you love,

this day and for evermore.


Mendelssohn:  Sonata No 4,  4th Movement     Christopher Nickol   


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