Feature Article

The Holy Purpose of Grief

How mourning ushers in divine restoration

Tim Rhodes February 19, 2022

The Church of St. Nicholas in Hamburg, Germany, is a striking landmark to behold. I first encountered it in the middle of a traffic jam on an overcast Saturday afternoon in the spring. I was fighting exhaustion, completing a nearly five-hour drive from Amsterdam in the Netherlands. So much was contending for my attention—the GPS on my dashboard, the congestion of cars all around me, and the uneasiness of traveling in an unfamiliar country.

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And yet, despite the swirl of stress and fatigue and culture shock, St. Nicholas cut through all of it, seizing my attention the moment I laid eyes on it. The steeple of the church is tall and ornate, with elaborate Gothic spires and columns, statues and gargoyles. At 147 meters, Saint Nicholas was briefly the tallest structure in the world: from 1874 to 1876. Even now, save for a pesky television tower, it still stands highest in the city. But that wasn’t what made St. Nicholas an imposing sight—much of the almost 485-foot spire is a stark and sooty black and dark brown, as if it has been charred in a fire. It was jarring to see the contrast of ornate beauty and dark foreboding intertwined. What could have caused such harsh and extensive scars?

It turns out “Operation Gomorrah” was as catastrophic as the name suggests—Hamburg was once destroyed like the biblical city. Over a period spanning eight days in the summer of 1943, the city was the target of an air raid coordinated by both U.S. and U.K. allied forces. In all of World War II, it was the most devastating bombing on a city in Europe. Historians have referred to it as “Germany’s Nagasaki,” and descriptions of the destruction are downright apocalyptic—with survivors using harrowing terms like “tornado” and “sea of fire.” Ultimately, more than 34,000 were killed (although some estimates set the number as high as 43,000), and over 180,000 were injured. 

Despite the swirl of stress and fatigue and culture shock, St. Nicholas cut through all of it, seizing my attention the moment I laid eyes on it.

During the week-long bombing, much of the Church of St. Nicholas was destroyed. After the fires were extinguished and the smoke dissipated, only the cathedral’s tower remained standing and, surprisingly, intact.

After the war’s end, while much of the city of Hamburg was slowly being reconstructed from the ground up, it was decided not to rebuild the church. Instead, the tower was left as is, to serve as a monument and eventually a museum dedicated to memorializing the specific bombing of Hamburg as well as the atrocities of war in general. A plaque outside the site reads: “The history of St. Nikolai reflects the general history of Hamburg, and in particular the events surrounding the air raids in 1943 ... The old church, however, serves as a central memorial site dedicated to the victims of war and Nazi tyranny. It reminds us of the events of summer 1943, both their origins and their consequences.”

A stark and sobering reminder it is. What normally would be considered an eyesore in the middle of Hamburg, St. Nicholas demands our attention and consideration for the weight of the history behind it. Even in the middle of traffic, it stares back at us and does not let us avoid its gaze.

After the war’s end, while much of the city of Hamburg was slowly being reconstructed from the ground up, it was decided not to rebuild the church.

Today the Church of St. Nicholas stands as a place of remembrance and mourning, allowing the city to grieve the specific tragedy of Operation Gomorrah. At the same time, it also reminds the rest of us of the desolation that war brings, warning of our own potential for violence and hatred. It is a visible manifestation of our worst urges. We are unable to look away, even if we may not want to see it.

As I continued to travel throughout Hamburg, the charred spire of St. Nicholas was always on the periphery. Still the tallest cathedral in the city, it was easy to spot from most vantage points. It loomed large in my mind, its haunting yet poignant memory shadowing me as I explored the city. It beckoned me to grieve—and to change.

Soong-Chan Rah, in his book Prophetic Lament, writes, “Lament in the Bible is a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble. The hope of lament is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.” The practice is not only an honest confession of past or present circumstances but also a plea to God that He would intervene and bring healing.

“The hope is that God would respond to human suffering that is wholeheartedly communicated through lament.”

For restoration to occur, it is crucial that harmful foundations are uncovered and exposed, whether they be personal or corporate transgressions, or related to situations where we’ve been the victim. In his sermon “Walking Through Dark Valleys,” Dr. Stanley reminds us, “Not only do we learn more in the darkness than we do in the light, but I want you to remember this –God wants us to share what we’ve learned in the darkness.” By offering up our cries of heartache to Christ, our lament and confession are meant not merely to absolve us from our past transgressions but also to reinforce our hope for a more holy future.

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