Life & Soul

Preparing for Epiphany with a saint of Auschwitz

Flowers lie on the railway tracks at Auschwitz (CNS/Kacper Pempel, Reuters)

I have been reading Edith Stein (St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross). Not her philosophical works, but some conferences she gave for the Epiphany in 1941. They are striking in their desire to explain not only the light that shines from the Manger, but also how this light is reflected by the other figures in the Christmas celebration. She meditates on the feasts which follow Christmas Day, trying to understand the strange juxtaposition of joy and suffering in the commemorations of Ss Stephen, John and the Holy Innocents. Even before the Magi arrive, these form a court of saints and martyrs around the newborn King, bringing spiritual gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Under terrible threat as Europe sank deeper into the chasm of war, the question of how great evil seemed to co-exist with great goodness was no philosophical abstraction for her.

Whoever comes to the Christ Child, Teresa says, comes to Mary and Joseph also. They are “completely imbued with his divine light”. All of Christmas is a feast of the Holy Family. I find this a comforting thought, especially following a bruising synod on the family. Here is the pattern for family life: it is both subject and object of revelation, not a cultural construction but a divinely ordained community, the way in which God has revealed his own humanity and thus the pattern of ours. The “difficult” feasts interrupting our picture of the Holy Family are already a reminder that no family escapes suffering and disappointment.

The celebration of the protomartyr on the day immediately following Christ’s birth liturgically always seems rather stark. Teresa calls it a homage of love to the newborn King, and shows how it is theologically (if not sentimentally) apt. For the Child in the Manger has come to fulfil the Father’s perfect will and to give his life on a cross, and “sees before him in spirit” all who will follow him in this way of the cross. The youthful Stephen will enter into Christ’s own obedience in love, an obedience expressed by the words of the Letter to the Hebrews: “A body you have prepared for me; Behold, I come to do your will.” Such obedience, Teresa says, can only be the fruit of a great love and is revealed in great love. Nativity and martyrdom: two moods, two aspects of one mystery, namely, love to the end, symbolising the gold the Magi bring.

Turning to the Holy Innocents, Teresa quotes a pious tradition that these infants received the special grace of natural maturity, that is, they understood what was happening to them and were martyrs in a conscious way. Even if this were so, she reflects, it would hardly be the same as a fully adult confession. It is not their heroism that is meant to inspire us but their poverty as they are led like lambs to the slaughter. Like the Christian children murdered by ISIS because they would not deny the name of Jesus, they had nothing to give except their life. Even this is taken from them and they allow it to happen. The Innocents surround the Manger, says Teresa, “to show us what kind of myrrh we are to bring to the Divine Child”. The Christ Child will share their bitterness, and they will mingle in His glory.

Gold and myrrh are the gifts of the saints who surround his feast, but what of frankincense? In Teresa’s mind, the child says to the Beloved Disciple: “No frankincense is more pleasing than the loving submission of a pure heart.” It is because of John’s virginal purity that he is permitted to see deeper than anyone into the mystery of the incarnation of the Div-ine Word. It is John who with a “bridal love” participated in the life and struggles of Jesus and who gives us so many beautiful images of Him as the Good Shepherd, the Vine, the Spring of Living Water and the Bread of Life. In a reference to their current situation, Teresa also mentions the Apocalypse, a book which “like none other, can teach us to understand the chaos of this time as part of a great battle between Christ and the Anti-Christ”.

“A new year at the hand of the Lord: we do not know whether we shall experience the end of this year,” concludes Teresa. (In 20 months she would be deported to Auschwitz.) “But if we drink from the fount of the Saviour each day, then each day will lead us deeper into eternal life and prepare us to throw off the burdens of this life easily and cheerfully at some time when the call of the Lord sounds.”

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (02/01/15)