19th Sunday and Finding the Wisdom of the Cross

The Three Crosses Rembrandt, 1653 (wikipedia - public domain)

For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh (Rom 9: 3).

The epistle reading of the Mass today is taken from the ninth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. It is an affirmation of what the Samaritan woman at the well plainly tells Our Lord: salvation is from the Jews (Jn. 4:22). St. Paul reminds us: They are children of Israel, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them according to the flesh, comes the Christ (Rom. 9:4-5). We do well to recall these facts as the scourge of antisemitism and the persecution of Christians intensify. We are witnessing and enduring a concerted attack on the Judeo-Christian foundations of our civilization and culture, a culture that has proven itself capable of uniting the different peoples of the world because within it there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for [we] are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise (Gal. 3: 28-29). Christianity alone is capable of uniting the peoples of the world; but the prince of this world, the devil who is a murderer from the beginning (Jn. 8:44) hates Christ, he hates the race of Christ and he hates the Church of Christ.

This past Wednesday, we kept the memorial of a Saint, a woman, a martyr to truth, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, who as a Jewish convert to Catholicism was caught up in the Nazi persecutions of the Jews and of the Church and was murdered at the infamous extermination camp Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 9th, 1942.  Edith Stein, as she was known in the world, was born in Breslau, Germany on October 12, 1891, a date that coincided with the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. Edith’s father died when she was just two years old, and she gave up the practice of her Jewish faith as an adolescent. As a young woman with profound intellectual gifts, Edith gravitated toward the study of philosophy. Through her studies, the non-religious Edith met several Christians whose intellectual and spiritual lives she admired. After earning her degree with the highest honours from Gottingen University in 1915, she served as a nurse in an Austrian field hospital during World War I. She returned to academic work in 1916, earning her doctorate after writing a highly-regarded thesis on the phenomenon of empathy. She remained interested in the idea of religious commitment, but had not yet made such a commitment herself.

In 1921, while visiting friends, Edith spent an entire night reading the autobiography of the sixteenth century Carmelite nun St. Teresa of Avila. She later recalled: When I had finished the book, I said to myself: This is the truth. We are ever-mindful that there is a providence of books. She was baptized into the Catholic Church on the first day of January, 1922. Edith intended to join the Carmelites immediately after her conversion, but would ultimately have to wait another eleven years before taking this step. In 1932 she took a university teaching position but in 1933, the rise of Nazism, combined with Edith’s Jewish ethnicity, put an end to her teaching career. Jewish academics were not permitted to teach in universities. After a painful parting with her mother, who did not understand her Christian conversion, she entered a Carmelite convent in 1934, taking the name Teresa Benedicta of the Cross as a symbol of her acceptance of suffering.

She wrote: I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take upon themselves on everybody’s behalf to intercede with God for everyone. Understandably, she prayed especially for the Jews of Germany whose tragic fate was becoming clear. In 1939, as the war began, she wrote: I ask the Lord to accept my life and my death, so that the Lord will be accepted by his people and that his kingdom may come in glory, for the salvation of Germany and the peace of the world. On August 2nd, 1942, she and her sister Rosa were picked up by the Gestapo at their Carmelite monastery in Echt, Holland, where they had fled for safety; because twelve days earlier the Dutch bishops had issued a pastoral letter denouncing Nazi racism. On August 7th, she and her sister were among the 987 Jews deported to Auschwitz from the transit camp of Westerbork. Upon arrival on August 9th, they were murdered.

She had authored quite a number of books, including her autobiography, Life in a Jewish Family, a book that ends abruptly because she was taken to her death before she could complete it. Her final work was a study of the great Carmelite mystic St. John of the Cross, entitled The Science of the Cross. She had written earlier I felt that those who understood the Cross of Christ should take upon themselves on everybody’s behalf to intercede with God for everyone. This in essence was the heart of her vocation as a cloistered Carmelite; and it is our vocation as disciples of Christ who share in His priesthood through baptism. It is also our conviction that we stand before God for all.   St. Paul explains this truth: For the love of Christ controls us, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised (2 Cor. 5:14-15). I believe that we understand the Cross of Christ because we know and believe firmly that the celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, the re-presentation of the Sacrifice of Our Lord on Calvary is always an invitation to enter more deeply into this Mystery of God’s self-giving, sacrificial love. Our conformity to this Mystery is at the heart of our worship and life; and our union with the Sacrifice of the Cross in the Mass enables us to worship the Father in spirit and truth, for such the Father seeks to worship Him (Jn. 4:23).

May the memory of St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross be a blessing; may it inspire and strengthen us also to seek the truth always, and to be witnesses to the truth about God and the human person created in His image and likeness. Our times are not unlike hers. The dictatorship that seeks to enslave humanity in our day is the dictatorship of relativism. These words that she penned long ago are no less relevant to us: The world is in flames. The struggle between Christ and antichrist rages openly, and so if you decide for Christ you can even be asked to sacrifice your life….Contemplate the cross: from His open Heart the Blood of the Redeemer pours, Blood which can put out even the flames of hell. May we who are schooled in the science of the Cross draw strength from Our Crucified Lord and intercede with God for everyone; especially for those who do not yet know Christ Our Lord as Messiah and Saviour, but no less for those of the household of the faith who have little or no knowledge of the Mass as the Sacrifice of Calvary. Knowing this makes all the difference; for as we worship, so we become.