Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
Isaiah 53:4-6 RSV
This last year I suggested that we might accompany our Advent reflections with Handel’s Messiah. In this same vein, I would like to suggest that Bach’s Passion of St Matthew can help us to think more deeply about the the passion of our Lord Jesus.
Alan E. Lewis in his book, Between Cross & Resurrection notes that Christians pass far too quickly from the crucifixion on Friday to the resurrection on Sunday. We do not give Holy Saturday its due. I would say that most Christians today (myself included) do not spend enough time meditating on the end of Christ’s earthly life.
A slow reading of the canonical Gospels will most certainly aid us. In addition to the reading of Scriptures, the contemplation of arte sacro or liturgical music can help us meditate upon the meaning of the events that brought us salvation through the person and work of Christ.
Here is an excerpt from the Passion of St Matthew by Bach:
Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder; Dadurch erhebt er sich und alle Von unserm Falle Hinauf zu Gottes Gnade wieder. Er ist bereit, Den Kelch, des Todes Bitterkeit Zu trinken, In welchen Sünden dieser Welt Gegossen sind und häßlich stinken, Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt.
The Savior falls down before his father; Thereby he raises me and all people From our fall Upward to Godís grace again. He is ready The cup of death’s bitterness To drink, Wherein the sins of this world Are poured and stink odiously, Because it pleases dear God.
A prayer by Karl Rahner and a painting by Giovanni Bellini
“God of my Vocation” A Prayer from Gebete des Lebens by Karl Rahner, translated by James M. Demske, S.J.
O God my Father, You are the God of free favors, of grace freely given. You who Your mercy to whomever You please, where and when You choose.
If it’s true that Your calling of human beings to share in Your own Life is a completely free gift, then, as I well understand, this summons is not something given to every man along with his nature. Man finds You only where You choose to be found.
And as proof that Your salvation is a gratuitous gift, every man’s road to eternal life, even though it leads to Your Infinity which is everywhere, must still take the “detour” through that definite human being who was born in Palestine under Emperor Augustus and died under the Governor, Pontius Pilate. We must take the “indirect route” leading through Your Son Who became man. Your grace comes to us not in the “always and everywhere” of Your all-pervasive Spirit, but in the “here and now” of Jesus Christ.
Your Holy Spirit blows where He will — where He will, not where I will. He is not simply always there, whenever and wherever a man wants Him to be. We must go to Him, there where He chooses to give His grace. And that’s why Your salvation is bound up with Your visible Church. That’s why Your grace comes to us in visible signs.
This is all quite clear to me, Lord, and I’m very happy about this distinctive characteristic of Your grace. It’s comforting to know that I can approach You not merely in the realm of “pure spirit” — this “pure spirit” about which the philosophers talk, when they start founding religions, has always struck me as being not spirit, but a pure ghost, anyway — but in concrete, tangible, visible signs. It warms my heart to know that I can be sure of Your power and presence in my life through the water of baptism, or by the audible word of forgiveness spoken by the priest, or in the holy bread of the altar.
For my part I want no religion or pure spirit, or pure internal experience. Basically, such a religion is a mere human invention, in which man ends up grasping only himself, instead of You. He plumbs only the shallow waters of his own spirit, and penetrates only his own poverty-stricken interior, instead of sounds the depths opened up by Your free word. And Your word tells us more of You than You could ever write in the narrow pages of Your creation.
But, my God, this arrangement of combined internal and external worship has brought something into my life which often lies heavily on my soul. You have made me Your priest, and have thus chosen me to be an earthly sign of Your grace to others. You have put Your grace into my hands, Your truth into my mouth. And although it doesn’t surprise me that men should recognized You when You come to meet them in Your only-begotten Son, or in the chaste water of baptism, or in the silent form of the host, or in the words of Scripture so simple and yet so profound, still I find it all but incredible that You desire to come into Your Kingdom in the hearts of men through me. How can people possibly recognize You in me?
Indeed You have gone so far as to give me, along with my priesthood, also all the other mans You use to convey Your loving greeting to men. You have equipped me with Your word, Your truth, Your sacraments. And You have attached these things to my ministry in such a way that they penetrate into the inmost regions of free souls only when these souls accept me, only when they take me along in the bargain.
Can people really recognize You in me? Or can they at least grasp the fact that You have sent me as the ambassador of Your truth, the bearer of Your mercy? When this question occurs to me, it seems that Your Gospel of joy and for my brethren is to me, the messenger, only a crushing burden.
I realize that You have sent me, that I am Your messenger — maybe a very pitiful one, but for all that still Your messenger, a man sent by You and stamped with Your ineffaceable seal. Your truth does not become false just because I preach it, even though I too am a sinful man, to whom the dictum can be applied: omnis homo mendax, “every man is a liar.”
Your grace remains pure, even when it is dispensed through my hands. Your Gospel is still the good tidings of great joy, even when it’s not particularly noticeable that my soul is exulting in God my Savior. And Your light continues to shine forth, changing the dark death-shadows of our earth into the brilliant noonday of Your grace, even when this light has to find its way to human beings through the cracked and dusty panes of my tiny lantern.
I know, Lord, that as a priest of Your true Church, I should not let the sense of my vocation, and the courage to preach Your Gospel in season and out of season, depend on the consciousness of my own personal worth. Your priest does not approach people as a revivalist or an enthusiast, not as a purveyor of mystic wisdom or gnostic or Pentecostal prophet, or whatever else such persons may call themselves. These can communicate to others no more of You than they have themselves. But as a priest, I come as Your legate, as a messenger sent by Your Son, our Lord. And that is at the same time less and more, a thousand times more than anything else.
But, O God of my calling, it would be so much easier if I could just deliver Your message and then, when Your work is done, go back to living my own life. Then the burden of being Your messenger would be no heavier than that of any other messenger or administrator who does his job and is done with it. But Your charge to me, Your commission itself has become my very life. It ruthlessly claims all my energies for itself, it lives from my own life.
As Your messenger, I can live my own personal life only by passing on Your word. I am Your messenger and nothing more. Your lamp — excuse me for being so bold, Lord — burns with the oil of my life. In Your service there are no office hours after which a man can closeup show and be his own master again. I can never forget that I am Your servant and go back to being a mere “private citizen.”
Truly it’s an unspeakable honor and privilege to be able to serve You with all one’s energy. I must thank You that You have turned my life to Your service, that I have no other “profession” that conveying the message of Your salvation. I must be eternally grateful that, in my life, profession and devotion are completely identical — there is no distinction between what I do out of duty and what I do out of love.
And yet, if it were only possible in Your service, as in every other, to separate official business from one’s private life! How much easier it would be! And I don’t say this because I would prefer to give You only a few hours’ service a day, and spend more time communicating to others my own religious experiences and inspirations, setting them on fire with my own enthusiasm and conviction. On the contrary, I want to be Your messenger, the transmitter of Your truth and Your grace, and nothing more. And precisely because that’s what I want, I sometimes with that people could better distinguish my official position from my private life.
Can one pass on Your truth without having fully grasped it himself? Can I preach Your Gospel, if it has not struck deep roots in my own heart? Can I pass on Your Life, if I am not alive with it myself? Your holy signs can produce grace of their own power, it’s true. But would my fellow men allow me to mark them with these signs, unless my own countenance were to them a sign that You had sent me? It’s unavoidable: Your official business and my private life cannot be separated.
And that is precisely the burden of my life. For look, Lord: even when I announce Your pure truth, I’m still preaching my own narrowness and mediocrity along with it. I’m still presenting myself, the “average man.” How can I bring my hearers to distinguish between You and me in the frightful mixture of You and me that I call my sermons? How can I teach them to take Your word to their hearts, and forget me, the preacher?
I want to be a transmitter of Your light, and to do so, I must nourish it with the oil of my life. And yet I can’t avoid placing myself before the lantern, coming between Your light and the searching eyes of my fellow men. I seem to be good for nothing at all but making the already-dark shadows of this world even darker and longer.
I understand all too well that, at the end of my priestly life, I shall have only Your poor, unprofitable servant. I shall have been the messenger whom You have sent on ahead, who, instead of cleaning the way for You, more often succeeds only in being a roadblock. Any grace that goes out from me is Yourgrace. Whatever of mine goes out from me is nothing, only a hindrance or, at best, a means You employ to test my fellow men, to see whether their instinctive love can recognize You, even when You disguise Yourself, almost beyond all recognition, by appearing to them in me.
O God of my vocation, when I consider these things, I must confess that I don’t at all feel like taking my place in the proud ranks of Your confident and conquering apostles. I rather feel that I should be on my way, simply and humbly, walking in fear and trembling. I don’t mean to criticize those among my brethren who can be so happily sure of themselves, those of Your servants who do so unmistakably reflect the inner confidence that they are coming in the name of the Lord God of Hosts, and who are quite amazed if anyone does not immediately recognize in them the ambassadors of the Almighty.
I cannot belong to that fortunate group, O Lord. Grant me rather the grace to belong to the number of Your lowly servants who are rather amazed when they are received by their fellow human beings. Let my heart tremble again and again in grateful surprise at the miracles of Your grace, which is mighty in the midst of weakness. Let me continue to marvel that I meet so many persons who allow me, poor sinner that I am, to enter into the secret chamber of their hearts, because they have been able to recognize You hidden in me.
Thus I shall be happy to set out again and again on my messenger’s rounds to my fellow human beings. You have sent me, and so I go in Your name, not my own. Let Your power triumph through my weakness, whenever You desire it to do so.
As I proceed with Your message along the pathway of my life, I shall no doubt often experience what befell Your prophet of long ago: I shall be disillusioned with Yahweh, laughed to scorn by people, a man of contention before the whole world. Then I must speak out — and woe is me, if I do not — I must speak of You, the One whom it is more fitting to honor by silence. I must speak, even with the tormenting feeling of being mere sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. For who can really know for certain whether or not he possesses the love without which everything else is just hollow noise?
In the strength of Your word I shall march continually around the Jericho of human souls, even with their laughter ringing in my ears, until You bring its walls crashing down. You will do this of Your own power, so that no one can boast before You of his prowess over souls. Thus will my mission be fulfilled, in the same way as was that of Your Son, my crucified Master. And for this, may You be praised for all eternity.
O God of my vocation, I am only a poor mask, behind which You have chosen to approach human beings as the hidden God. Grant me the grace day by day to be ever more free from sin and self-seeking. Even then I shall remain what I can’t help being. Your disguise and Your unprofitable servant. But then at least I shall grow ever more like Your Son, Who also had to envelop the eternal light of His divinity in the form of a servant, to be found in the garb and livery of a man.
When I bear the burden of Your calling, when Your mission weighs down heavily upon me, when Your Majesty humbles me, and my weakness is taken up into that of Your Son, then I may confidently trust that the hindrance which I have been to Your coming may still turn out to be a blessing to my brothers. Then perhaps You will transubstantiate my servitude — for only You could work such a change, unseen by me and my fellow human beings — into a somehow sacramental form, under whose poverty You will be the bread of life for my brethren.
O God of my vocation, let my life be consumed as the Sacred Host, so that my brothers and I may live in You, and You in us, for all eternity.
Karl Rahner. Prayers for a Lifetime. Albert Raffelt, ed. New York: Crossroad, 1995.