‘Knowledge of the Cross can be gained only when one comes to feel the Cross radically. I have been convinced of that from the first moment and have said from my heart: Ave, Crux, spes unica, Hail, Cross, our only hope' (Edith Stein)
In our reflection today, on the extraordinary life of Edith Stein, St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross, we should perhaps start with a focus on three key words in the quotation above, namely the words 'our only hope'.
It is the scope and the challenge of the Cross, and its endearing promise of hope, that Edith Stein presents to the reader in a most honest and profound way, a message still so relevant amidst the fragility and the despair of the contemporary world.
Through her passion for the Jewish faith; her tireless academic work to reach the 'whole person' (woman and man) through philosophy and education; her Christian baptism in 1922 and the subsequent influence of Benedictine liturgy and prayer upon her thought; onto her genuine commitment to the Carmelite Order - an upright spirituality 'in heart and soul' - Edith Stein is bringing our attention to a unique experience of the Cross, and in that realization posing the very question - how and where does the Cross sit in our lives as a radical and redemptive force?
'By the Cross I understood the destiny of God's people' , she wrote in 1938 to Mother Petra Bruning, an Ursuline Sister, pointing again to the width of this holy symbol to reach beyond tradition and beyond discipline, '...those who recognised it as the Cross of Christ had to take it upon themselves in the name of all'. By using the pronoun 'all' , she is again emphasising both mystery and reality behind the Cross, a truth that spans generation, affiliation and denomination, politics and culture, individuality and society. As the grip of Nazism across 1930's Germany tightened and the persecution of the Jewish people began in earnest, Edith Stein regarded the Cross as a beacon of universal promise and confidence.
Yet, how might this binding and dynamic understanding of the Cross be communicated for today, within a rapidly moving and technologically driven world? Where can its radical power, positioned at the heart of Christian practice and worship, be explored for a wider audience? How might the meaning of the Cross be 'taken upon ourselves' in fresh and far reaching ways that uphold its triumphant and life giving truth?
There are numerous visual images that bombard us in the course of our daily lives, images that seek to influence, to attract, to connect, to change and to direct us! If it is indeed a symbol that transverses many paths and experiences, bridging communal and personal highs and lows, then how might we prevent the Cross itself from being confined to a designated sacred space, to a historical segment, or merely as decorative ornament or accessory?
The answer may lie in closer examination of the Gospels and scrutiny of the term 'discipleship'. Calling on the crowd to come nearer in Mark 8:34 , Jesus reminds us that 'whoever wants to be my disciple, must deny themselves, take up the cross and follow me'. Elizabeth of the Trinity in her gifted poetic style aslo attests to this truth as she pleads 'help me to forget myself entirely' , so as 'to abide' in the love of the Eternal One.
In his writings on the mysticism of the Passion, St. Titus Brandsma portrays an unequivocal picture of the ministry of Jesus Christ. It is a ministry outside of ‘human appreciation’ or human achievement, outside of status and affluence. From the Last Supper onwards, his small band of disciples and followers begin to grow deeper in their understanding of this man whom they have addressed as ‘Rabbi' and 'Teacher’. As they watch his response to the prevalent religious and social ethics of the day, observe the power of his words and actions across the region, they are gradually presented with a vision entirely at odds with the standards and priorities of their familiar world. St Titus Brandsma writes:
'The prophets had already marked His way of suffering; the disciples now understood that He had not avoided that way. From the crib to the cross, suffering, poverty and lack of appreciation were His lot. He had directed His whole life to teaching people how different is God’s view of suffering, poverty and lack of human appreciation from the foolish wisdom of the world’
The demands or challenges of the Cross are as real and pertinent for us as followers today as they were for the disciples of Jesus in first century Palestine. The crucifixion of Jesus compels us to look again at where we stand individually and collectively amidst the regular patterns, predicaments and disconnect within the world. War, environmental destruction and poverty plague our globe. Where have we been led by misguided political authority and by the dominant economic model of commercialism, aspiration and success? The Gospels paint such a different view of our perceived and collective notions of wisdom, success and knowledge, and those final chapters around the crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels, confront us with all that limits our potential, our progress, our understanding of truth and harmony in Creation.
Looking exclusively at the figure of Christ in these telling narratives we see a man, courageous and determined, who made a direct and at times desperate appeal to others to reach within themselves in order to discover the sacred means of renewal, of liberation and direction. We see a figure of constant hope. It is no different at the Cross. where we are confronted with what Edith Stein calls 'the needs' of the human race - our search for peace, our hold to goodness, to mercy and to perfection.
There are maybe three layers, or levels, through which we can explore in more detail the symbolism and the scope of the Cross, and in a very brief outline here, we turn to consider 'the mystery of the Cross' for our broken and divided world. The first relates to our experiences, the second to our structures and the third to our sense of discovery and intimacy:
a) Human Suffering and Injustice The Cross has an obvious and profound way of reminding us of the suffering that we experience and feel in the course of our lifetimes, and the suffering that we are capable of inflicting upon others (sometimes loosely termed 'moral suffering') that we cause in thought, in word and in behaviour.
Many are horrified to learn that the brutal practice of crucifixion continued in parts of the world until relatively recently (Sengoku period in Japan, ISIS cells) and in fact have remained as a legal form of punishment within certain penal codes, despite the Roman Emperor Constantine banning the practice in 337CE. The artistic interpretations of the Crucifixion over the years have brought this sense of wickedness alongside 'innocent suffering' into our cultural consciousness.
It a stark reminder of the sheer brutality of human to human interaction, inflicting such pain and distress on another through the medium of force and violence. It is the depths of a collective taste for malice, cruelty and evil.. A reminder of the absence of morality, of compassion and empathy, of reverence for life. As a Roman punishment it was a visual statement around the jurisdiction and authority of the Roman state.
The wounds of Christ are visible. Some of our own wounds - physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual - are perhaps not. Whoever we are, as we grapple with the strains and stresses of the present day, when we look intently on the Cross, we are confronted by something deeply broken, chaotic and damaged within the human psyche. As CS Lewis once remarked, ‘I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity’.
b) Human Control and Allegiances To probe a little further we might consider what structures and systems lay behind this punishment of Crucifixion? What political reality allowed the death of this innocent man? What human response was there to stop such vile and brutal practices? How might things really change for the better?
Reading the account of the Passion and Crucifixion of Jesus in the Gospels we see that leaders, crowds, noise and allegiances are at all work. How are these human allegiances formed and swayed? How is the human soul so isolated in the mayhem and the melee of power seeking, of political, social and economic movement and manoeuvrings?
With this dangerous trend seemingly written into our collective history, ignoring the sanctity of human life, the profound dignity and worth of every 'child of God', we might consider again the call to be 'vigilant', to be 'stout in conscience', and indeed come to question the motives and instincts that lie behind popular trends and ties. Of course loyalties, allegiances and common commitments are necessary and positive elements of growing and functioning in models of nationhood, community and family, but might the balance of our hearts and minds still on occasions be affected by the dominant systems and ideas that surround us?
Perhaps the question should then become: Is there a safe space, or place, for tenderness and compassion, for harmony and contentment? Can we hold to truth amid the noise and restlessness of human beings trying to exercise influence and control, amid their demanding or overreaching allegiance to one creed or to another?
The Cross might here serve as a warning to ourselves. Power takes us all for a uncomfortable ride!
c) Eternal Belonging and Unity Can we go further?
We might be aware of inequalities and injustice, alerted to the forces that control us, on our guard against factors that can rapidly sweep in and easily shape us, but feel compelled to look again on the Cross for that 'hope ' embedded in the words of Edith Stein. Outside of worldly identities and definitions, success and allegiance, there is possibly the greater challenge of 'loving God', as a natural means of learning about our innermost being, our sometimes self-contradictory character.
'Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age' (Matthew 28:20) . Conditioned behaviours, a confused sense of purpose, repeated anger and frustration with life's little trials and with the much greater structures of the world are one thing. Love is quite another. Here, the Cross opens up qualities that we perhaps only fleetingly perceive and adopt. The eternal is providing solace and security, a home for the soul. It is sensitively awakening us to a presence free from ambivalence and anxiety, where life can be lived as a prayer. 'The mystery of the Cross' turns then to a treasured glimpse of 'belonging in Unity'. Words are freed from the tired language of allegiance and power. Our prayerful actions are strengthened despite the suffering and the injustices that continue to rage. We feel the 'divine power' that the Cross bestows on us, working to a merciful and integrative goal.
By our love we know that we belong to an Eternal Source, the scope of the possible, the truthful. Mercy shines there in a most mysterious manner, beyond the image of our 'Master' or 'Lord' crucified, amid our need for relief from suffering and our need for forgiveness in contributing to it from time to time. Spiritually we are in the Present. Belonging. Still. And it is the Cross that returns us to the simple truth of life lived alongside divine reality and purpose.
‘He who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it', said St. Titus Brandsma. The Cross is unavoidable for St Theresa Benedicta. It is in our 'entering into it', its radical and ever present nature, courageously embracing its liberating force, that we transform our lives and the lives of those around us with an injection of hope, of peace and of wonder at the divine path set out before us.