Section 5: Free Acceptance of Creatureliness and Cross
"Remember, Man, that You are Dust"
It seems to me that contemporary artists and writers are more interested in truth than in beauty, if the latter is understood in the traditional sense. They speak more than heretofore about the unredeemed misery of our existence; they say that we are dust and ashes and return to dust, tired wanderers on dusty roads going where? We do not know. All amusements seem almost to be only a facade hiding anything but a natural joie de vivre. Is it then still necessary that we should gather here to be signed with a cross of ashes and to be told: Remember, man, that you are dust and will return to dust? Is it still necessary to commemorate the death of the Lord, which is only too present to us in our own life and in every mortal man, in whom we encounter Christ according to his own words? Yes, indeed, "It is right and fitting", as we say in the Pre- face of the Mass. But there is a difference whether we proclaim our own misery or whether we let Christ tell us about it in the words of the Church. For if we say it ourselves it is almost inevitable that we should either protest against it or indulge in self-pity; at best we shall be at a loss, not knowing what to do about it all.
It makes a difference whether we mourn for ourselves or whether another is mourning for us. The latter comes very near to being a genuine comfort: true, our misery is not taken from us, on the contrary, the other says, with almost cruel directness that we are ourselves dust and ashes. But he who mourns with us has taken them into his very heart.
This mourning of Christ and the Church on our behalf means, first of all, that we are allowed to mourn, for our sorrow has not yet been overcome, neither by our own strength nor by the comforting of another. It means further that we are allowed to weep, we need not pretend that we can get over everything keeping a stiff upper lip, we may well be completely bewildered, unable to produce a harmony out of all the contradictions and dissonances of our life. For God alone can do this, and we ought not to pretend that we, too, could do the same. But if we entrust ourselves completely to the ineffable mystery of our God we shall not, indeed, be freed from our bewilderment; on the contrary, this will fall into the holy darkness in which it will become almost more cruelly painful than before. Nevertheless, there is no other way to dissolve it; it is still falling and has not yet been dissolved, therefore we are allowed to mourn.
The sorrow of Christ joins our sorrow and says: Your mourning is mine. In the darkness of death I cried out: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? But before that I had saidßan incomprehensible mysteryßFather, into thy hands I commend my life. Do not say that it was easier for me to mourn, because I was also God. I was and I am a man like you. True, I was the man in whom the Word of God had made humanity his own; but because of this absolute nearness I was also more exposed than anyone else, I could experience more poignantly what it means to be a man, who is not God. And how can you know what happens when God's omnipotent love takes the misery of his creature to his own heart and lets it penetrate even into the centre of this heart? How do you know what happens when his omnipotent love compels the ever-blessed God to suffer the misery of the creature as his own? Your sorrow is my own sorrow, thus says the voice of Christ in the words of the Church today.
But in thus mourning with us Christ and the Church are also asking us if we hear and accept the accusation underlying this mourning. Not all, but much of what we call our pain ought to be called our guilt. We cannot separate our guiltless torment from the torturing guilt in which we have involved ourselves. We are always experiencing the one pain in which our own guilt also calls to us, the guilt of unredeemed lust and rebellious despair. Hence, while sor- rowing we also always accuse ourselves. And if Christ sorrows with us, he does not relieve us of the accusation which we should level against ourselves, if we would only understand our sorrow correctly.
The words said to us on Ash Wednesday as our truth, our comfort and our indictment are written in Scripture at the beginning of the history of mankind; they are a statement and a judgment of what man is from the beginning. These words concern a beginning, but they are said by God. They sound like a statement about our future, about the abyss of death into which we shall fall. But our future is not what is said to us in these words, so that we should know whence we come and what we must endure, our future is he who says these words; their deepest sense is that HE is addressing us. He speaks to us because he wants to be involved with us. He has not yet finished speaking, he will have done so only at the end, when he will have fully communicated himself. In hard words he reveals to us the abyss of our origin, in order to promise us himself as the abyss of our future. He is ours, this is o expectation and our hope against all hope. The future different from the past, else it would not be future. But there is future because there is hope.
What has just been said about the meaning of the Ash Wednesday words could not have been said otherwise; yet all this will remain empty talk unless everyone applies it to himself, changing the general into the particular, for only thus can these words be realized in the individual life. Thus death will perhaps mean only the quiet patience with which we endure the boring daily round, a request for pardon and its granting; perhaps it means the patience with which we listen to, and bear with another, or the unre- quited faithfulness of love. Such death may also mean that we overcome our irritation with someone we find uncongenial, or that we have the courage of our convictions without being accorded the esteem that often goes with it; it may mean being faithful to one's own vocation even though this may not be popular at the moment. Nevertheless, all this is only a "meaning"; the words still remain general and carry no obligation. They can be made binding only by the action of one's own heart, for this alone creates reality, eternity in time. For all these ordinary daily actions of a decent person really involve a death, namely the silent, unsung relinquishing of oneself and of the blind desire for felt happiness which is so unrewarded that we only experience it as just part of the daily round and cannot even savour it as an action that is its own reward. We die throughout our life. What matters is if we do it willingly, if the Passion of Christ is also our own deed through which we receive grace.
Text of a sermon preached in Munich on Ash Wednesday 1967, first published in Geist und Leben 40 (1967), pp. 1 -- 3.
The Passion of the Son of Man
Words for Holy Week
If we want truly to be Christians, this week ought to be a time when we share in a special way in the Passion of Christ. We do this not so much by indulging in pious feelings, but by bearing the burdens of our life with simple fortitude and without ostentation. For we share by faith in the Passion of our Lord precisely by realizing that our life is a participation in his destiny. We find this difficult, because so often we fail to understand that the bitterness and burden of our own life do -- or should -- give us a mysterious share in the destiny of all men. Internal and external distress carries the deadly danger of egoism, because it tempts a man to think only of himself, to be only concerned with his own affairs and thus to increase his distress by his self-centred loneliness in a vicious circle. But it should, and it can be different. We can freely accept our own distress as our contribution to the destiny of all men, whose burdens are thus mysteriously lightened. This can be verified in everyday life. The person who suffers selfishly, who rebels and complains, actually seeks to transfer his own burden to others, instead of bearing it silently so that it may be easier for them. But this is only the commonplace appearance of a more profound, all- pervading law: We always bear also the burden of others, and we should know that they, too, bear our burden in a thousand different ways which we do not know at all, beyond the restrictions of time and space to the very limits of human history. Or have we never been terrified because the whole sorrow and torment of mankind seemed to confront us in a seemingly insignificant experience, in a tormented child, in a beggar or a dying man? And did not this sorrow seem to invite us to recognize it as our own and to help to bear it, and to accept our own sorrow in such a way that all mankind's sufferings would be made more bearable and be redeemed? If we were aware of this, we would also better understand that we can share in the Passion of the Son of Man during this Holy Week, we would understand that his Passion is the unique acceptance of the passion of mankind, in which it is accepted, suffered, redeemed and freed into the mystery of God.
In Holy Week we often speak of the passion, the cross and the death of Jesus. But this passion confronts us even, indeed first of all, in our practical life, not only in our pious thoughts. This can be obscured both by the mysterious horror of the cross itself and by the fact that we have become too familiar with the language in which it is expressed. Today we still speak of the cross only in the explicit language of the Church and religion; perhaps some pious old Christians may still use the expression for the experience of their own life. This linguistic change makes it more difficult to relate our own life to the Passion of the Lord. But what do we mean when we speak of the cross, the passion, of death in relation to Jesus? In him these words had certainly a very deep and mysterious meaning. Nevertheless, the Son of Man, too, experienced them as we do, only today we use different expressions. What is meant by them does not only take place in those moments when the incomprehensibility of life can no longer be shirked, for example, when our dearest die, when a lifelong love is for ever destroyed by unfaithfulness, when the doctor tells us that death is imminent and inevitable. What is meant is always present, especially if we do not want to admit it, if we suppress it and cover it over. It is always there: in the mute presence of death throughout our life, in the loneliness which is there even when we are quite near to our beloved, in the colourless daily round, in the thankless performance of our duty selfishly exploited by others, in the fatigue and deterioration of our life, which was once so marvellously colourful and exuberant. This passion and death are present when the inner voice through which a man had expressed himself has ceased to make itself heard and when all our life and all our hopes have ended in inevitable disappointment. We ought to allow our living experience once more to fill the empty verbal shells of an all-too-familiar religious language, so that the word of the cross and of the imitation of the crucified Lord might suddenly receive an intelligible content and a power that force men to make a decision. Then we would know that we must truly act out our faith when we are asked: Do you accept the cross of your life, do you know that it means sharing in the Passion of the Lord? Then we would meet not only in the liturgy of the Church but in our very life the words: Hail, Cross, our only hope in this Passiontide, the passion that is also ever present and is always suffered even in the most commonplace life.
The car in which we ride through life may seem to us a fine, comfortable caravan which takes us on a holiday trip though beautiful scenery. But it is also the prison van of our finite being, in which we are shut up with our disappointments and the misery of our boring daily life, in which we ride on to our final end, which is death. We all are cross-bearers in the sober sense which we have discussed above. No one can rid himself of this cross of existence. But precisely for this reason it is difficult to know whether we accept this cross in faith, hope and love to our salvation, or whether we only bear it protesting secretly, because we cannot free ourselves from it but are nailed to it like the robber on the left of Jesus, who cursed his fate and blasphemed the crucified Lord by his side. It is almost impossible to distinguish and decide between these two attitudes. And yet all depends on this distinction. Everything -- that is the meaning which we give to our life or rather which we allow God to give it, and thus our salvation. The one question is whether we accept it or not. When do we accept it? Certainly not if we talk much about it and imagine ourselves very brave. Certainly not by exaggerating the little sorrows of our daily life and whining and whimpering about them. Certainly not if we imagine that the will to bear the cross prevents us from defending ourselves and from leading a free, healthy and sound life as long as is at all possible. Nor does the word of the cross allow us to be indifferent to the cross of another and only interested in our own comfort. But to accept the cross does not mean either that we should take a perverse pleasure in pain or be so dulled that we no longer feel it. But in what, then, does this acceptance consist? It is difficult to say, because it can take so many forms that a common factor is scarcely noticeable. It may appear as a brave will to fight on, as sober patience, a heroic love of the cross, uncomplaining sharing in the fate of others, self-forgetfulness in the sorrows of one's neighbour and in many other forms. It seems to me that the crucified Lord has fathomed all these forms when he cried out on the cross: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? and when he prayed: Father, into thy hands I commend my life. In the first quotation the cross remains incomprehensible and is not explained away, while in the second it is accepted as this remaining mystery. Both together constitute the truth of the acceptance. The whole may be present even if we only utter the first cry while the second is there, though it remains unspoken. Whether or not we become wholly dumb when death takes away our voice, that is perhaps the last mystery of our life.
On Maundy Thursday Christendom commemorates the institution of the Eucharist by our Lord. It happened in the night he was betrayed. Ever since then Christians have celebrated this meal despite all their divisions, though in sorrow that they cannot all celebrate it together. Never- theless, it is a consolation that all who call themselves Christians do celebrate it, even though their interpretation of what happens at it is not everywhere quite the same. The meaning of the sacred meal is immensely wide and diversified. We gather round a table, the altar, confessing by this very fact that we are to be united in love like a family. We know by faith that the Lord has promised to be present in such a congregation and is mysteriously there among those who share the meal. His death is proclaimed until he comes again, the death which brings us forgiveness and life, but which also takes us, who die throughout our life, into its incomprehensible mystery and melancholy. But the meal that is celebrated is already filled with the blessed joy of eternal life which we hope for and expect. Christ unites us in the Church, the community of those who believe and love, which is his body, by giving himself to us in the elements of bread and wine, the perfect signs of his body and blood. In this meal the word God speaks to us, the word of eternal love becomes radiantly present in our darkness. In this sacrifice Christ, who has given himself for us once and for all, is presented as the Church's gift to the eternal God. Now it is true that, from God's point of view, the liturgical celebration of this sacred meal contains what it signifies and gives what it says. Nevertheless, as far as we are concerned, it receives its ultimate truth and fulfilment only when it is celebrated as that "communion" which takes place in the daily round of our earthly life. Even in the Eucharist Christ becomes our salvation rather than our judgment only if we also recognize him in the least of our brothers whom we meet in ordinary life. We announce the death of the Lord in the Mass to our salvation only if in serene faith and hope we also encounter it in its everyday form of sorrow and disappointment. This is how we must live if the Eucharist is to be our salvation and not our judgment. But this awesome truth contains also a blessed mystery: Many may perhaps meet the Lord in their daily life by faithfully obeying the transforming voice of their conscience even though they have not yet found the holy table of the Church where he celebrates his sacred meal with us.
The day we are commemorating seems far away, yet actually it did not begin in history and has never come to an end. For it began with history itself and is still present in our own life today. For what finally comes to light in the darkness of the first Good Friday is, in the words of St. Paul, the ever-valid and ever-new scandal and folly of the cross, though the apostle adds at once that just this is the wisdom and power of God for those who believe. True, we do not always feel this. It is even a good thing that we realize our condition only rarely, else we should not be able to bear it. But on this Good Friday we ought to consider of our own free will the terrors of life, so that we may stand fast when we must face the abyss and endure it. For we all are gathered round the cross of the Crucified, whether we look up to him or try to look past him, whether we are at the moment quite gay and happy (this is not forbidden) or frightened to death. We are standing under the cross, being ourselves delivered to death, imprisoned in guilt, disappointed, deficient in love, selfish and cowardly, suffering through ourselves, through others, through life it- self, which we do not understand. Of course, if we are Just quite comfortable we protest against such pessimistic out- look which wants to take away our joy in life (which is quite untrue); when we are vigorous in body and soul we refuse to believe that this will not last for ever. Yet we are always under the cross. Would it not therefore be a good thing to look up to him whom they have pierced, as Scrip- ture expresses it? Ought we not to admit what we have suppressed and to want to stand where we actually do stand? Surely we ought to have the courage to let our heart be seized by God's grace and to accept the scandal and absurdity of our inescapable situation as "the power of God and the wisdom of God" by looking up at the Crucified and entering into the mystery of his death. Many certainly do this without being aware of it by their way of life which accepts death in silent obedience. But we may also fail to do this. Hence it is better expressly to celebrate the Good Friday of the Lord by approaching his cross and speaking his last words with him. They are quite simple, everyone can understand and say them with him. This is the abyss of existence into which we fall. And we believe that there dwell love and life themselves. We say Father, into your hands I commend myself, my spirit, my life and my death. We have done all we could doßthe other, the ineffable that is salvation will come too.
Holy Saturday is a strange day, mysterious and silent. It is a day without a liturgy. This is as it were a symbol of everyday life which is a mean between the abysmal terror of Good Friday and the exuberant joy of Easter. For ordinary life is also mostly in-between the two, in the centre which is also a transition and can only be this. Perhaps the worst in life is already behind us. Though this is not certain, and perhaps not even radically true. For the very end is still before us.
Nevertheless, may be we have "come through"; perhaps the old wounds are no longer bleeding, we have become wiser and more modest in our desires, we expect less from ourselves and others, and our resignation is not too painful. This may be just as well. We cannot al- ways have everything in one exercise, as a medieval mystic says. We need not always be horrified by the incomprehensibility of life nor entranced by its glory, we need not always celebrate the highest liturgy of life or death. Ordinariness, too, may be a blessing. But this ordinariness of the in-between must be understood as a transition, the transition from Good Friday to Easter. Man, especially the Christian, has not the right to be modest, he must maintain his infinite claim. The fact that his pain is bearable must not be allowed to replace his blessed duty to hope for the infinite joy of eternity. Because God is, he may demand all, for he is all. Because death has died in Christ, our resignation must also die. The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter, the persistent hope for the final glory of God. If we live the Holy Saturday of our existence properly, this will not be a merely ideological addition to this common life as the mean between its contraries. It is realized in what makes our everyday life specifically human: in the patience that can wait, in the sense of humour which does not take things too seriously, in being prepared to let others be first, in the courage which always seeks for a way out of the difficulties. The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible and expects God to do the impossible. To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously: the worst has actually already happened; we exist, and even death cannot deprive us of this. Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life, but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life.
Text of sermons broadcast on the Bavarian Radio during Holy Week (20 -- 25 March) 1967.