Finding Christmas in Isolation, as Community, with the Stalingrad Madonna

Licht, Leben, Liebe. Light, Life, Love.

These are the words that illustrate the border of the Stalingrad Madonna, or Stalingradmadonna, drawn by Pastor Kurt Reuber, a Protestant minister, physician and military officer attached to the German Army encircled during the Siege of Stalingrad, now Volgograd, during the Second World War in December of 1942. Created with charcoal on the back of a large Soviet military map through the cold, dark of winter in the midst of unending suffering, the Virgin Mary and the Christ-child are depicted in a graceful, simple style as young mother and newborn son, devoid of ornamentation, regal clothing or any further illustrative indication of their holiness. And yet, the image is immediately identifiable as the Nativity of Christ; Light, Life and Love.

The Stalingrad Madonna survived the war, its illustrator did not. Pastor Reuber died a prisoner in the Soviet Union in 1944; his illustration has since become a central feature of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church/ Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gedächtniskirche in Berlin, and arguably, the second-most important symbol of the Community of the Cross of Nails.

Twice I visited Coventry as a Community of the Cross of Nails member during my decade of living and working in the Holy Land. Twice I have sat alone in silence in front of the copy of the Stalingrad Madonna in the Coventry chapel. Twice I have found myself as lost in contemplation as I have through nine Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem, through countless hours of services, tours and silent prayer in Nativity Church, day in and day out, year after year. Twice, I returned to the Holy Land from Coventry, renewed in the purpose of my work, if not in the hope of a better future.

Dan in 2016 at Nativity Church, Bethlehem, in front of the ”Seventh Angel” mosaic uncovered during renovations.

Two years after my last visit to Coventry, I made my final celebration of Christmas in Bethlehem, taking part in a small midnight mass held in a convent near Nativity Church. As I journeyed home on foot in the darkness of December, walking one final time past the refugee communities of displaced Palestinians from the 1948 war, the military checkpoints, and the enormous Separation Wall that has torn Bethlehem apart, I kept the image of the Stalingrad Madonna in my mind; barefoot and draped in simple rough cloth in the midst of poverty and crisis, yet the most blessed of all women, holding the most precious gift the world will ever know. Soon they must leave Bethlehem and begin their next trial; for the moment, all is well and as it should be in the place that God has intended. Two thousand years later, in the same town of Bethlehem, my faith asked me to see the enduring truth of that message when everything around me cried out the opposite. Now in December of 2020, it still does so today.

LICHT, LEBEN, LIEBE. May we find Light, Life and Love not as we wish it be, but as it is revealed to us.

Dan Koski is a staff member of the Institute for Ecumenical Research/ Institut für Ökumenische, a regional community member of the Community of the Cross of Nails located in Forschung in Sibiu/Hermannstadt, Romania. He has been involved with the Community of the Cross of Nails since 2016. Dan can be reached at ccesiofh@gmail.com.

CCN Thought for the Week for 24th December – Dan Koski, Institute for Ecumenical Research, Romania
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