In the image of God he created them …

Albani Psalter (12th century), Mary Magdalene announces the resurrection of Christ to the disciples.

In the context of the annual celebration of Easter, we encounter some women who can be called “witnesses from the beginning”: Mary of Magdala – as in the Albani Psalter (12th century) pictured here – is the first to recognize the Risen Christ and deliver his message to the disciples (who, admittedly, do not believe her); the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well proclaims the Messiah in her village (some villagers believe her, others only after they have convinced themselves). And Martha – not unlike Peter (Mt 16:16) – confesses her friend Jesus “the Christ, the Son of God, he who is coming into the world.” (Jn 11:27). The historical impact of these women is short or non-existent, even today.

Not to diminish our Easter joy, but woman’s life in the church does not feel “redeemed” in every respect. There is too much hierarchical male dominance in the name of “divine right” and too little faithfulness to the biblical image of man, starting with the creation narratives up to Galatians 3:28.

The adoption of the respective current anthropologies has led to different ecclesiastical images of women that have one thing in common: What “being a woman” is has always been and still is decided by men in the Catholic Church – to the disadvantage of women.

From fluid transitions …

The ancient concept of gender thought of woman (including her sexual organs) as an unfinished “imperfect man.” Masculine and feminine did not denote biological differences, but rather characteristics and attitudes on a continuum between the poles of masculine-intellectual-strong and feminine-material/physical-weak. Women could find recognition by “masculinization,” while men could be “shamefully feminized.” Christian theologians from Origen to Thomas Aquinas have received and reflected on this image of women for over a millennium — perhaps one reason why, from ancient times, it was not necessary to argue specifically for the exclusion of women from the priesthood? The fact that women nevertheless served at the altars for centuries is shown by the repeatedly inculcated restrictions and prohibitions imposed by church authorities, which were often not enforced until much later.[1]

…to Cult purity

The Pauline “insignificance” of the sexes in Christ (Gal 3:28) turned into disdain, even contempt, especially for female sexuality. The late antique ideal of spiritualization in connection with cultic ideas of purity and sexual taboos was detrimental to women. As a periodically defiled and libidinous temptress, woman was incapable of liturgy. Only the “pure hands” of the supposedly asexual priest were allowed to touch the holy of holies.[2] Other effects of the menstrual taboo included: baptisms being postponed, church attendance being restricted, and the reception of communion being forbidden – even for women who had recently given birth. Even nuns were denied a view of the sanctuary during their menses.

The “essentially” different woman

The discovery of the “natural” biological otherness of women in the early modern period did not improve their situation. The new binary image of man merely transformed her previous deficits – feeling instead of understanding, devotion instead of leadership, etc. – into virtues and established them as female “essential characteristics.” The ecclesiastical ideal of the humble, pure, servant-obedient handmaiden of the Lord (or: of the lords?) was born from a male perspective: Mary-likeness instead of Christ-likeness is a topos that is still popular today.[3] How practical that such a strictly conceived complementarity also provides the (theologically untenable) “argument” that women cannot embody Christ in the ordained ministry for lack of “natural likeness” (!).

… and their “special” dignity

The social emancipation of women in the 20th century did not remain without effect on ecclesiastical thinking: John XXIII recognized that women “are demanding both in domestic and in public life the rights and duties which belong to them as human persons.“[4]

John Paul II, however, in his 1988 Apostolic Exhortation Mulieres dignitatem – which he characteristically understands as a “Marian Year meditation” – conferred special dignities on women. The pope attaches importance to their otherness: “The personal resources of femininity are certainly no less than the resources of masculinity: they are merely different” (MD 10). By defining “virginity and motherhood as two particular dimensions of the fulfillment of the female personality” he declares that “these two paths in the vocation of women as persons, explain and complete each other” (MD 17).  With the help of the Holy Spirit, women could realize that and “thus be disposed to making a ‘sincere gift of self’ to others thereby finding themselves” (MD 31). Male fantasies; once again, women’s rights are not general rights, but special rights! Most recently, Pope Francis, in his post-synodal letter Querida Amazonia (2020), hit the same narrow notch, dashing the hopes of Amazonian women. “Profoundly moved” by the testimony “of strong and generous women” he sums up: “Women make their contribution to the Church in a way that is properly theirs, by making present the tender strength of Mary, the Mother.”[5] The request for ordination of women deacons in a distressing pastoral situation went unheard.

One last Witness from the “Silent Church”

But there are Catholic ordained women priests. Following his motto, “Leadership is the granting of freedom” Bishop Felix M. Davidek ordained married men as bishops and women as priests in the Czech underground church during Communist rule, including his vicar general Ludmila Javorova. Attempts to positively involve the Vatican in advance had previously failed. Even before the fall of Communist states beginning in 1989, Davidek was defamed as mentally ill, then in 1996 ordained women were forbidden to exercise their ministry and were imposed the strictest silence. When the pressure from Rome on her sisters in priestly ministry became too great, Ludmila Javorova broke her silence and told her story.[6]

The conclusion? Whether “unworthy,” “equal in dignity,” “with special dignity,” or idealized into a devoted lover and bearer of a mission “of capital importance” … for the rediscovery by believers of the true face of the Church,”[7] women remain “unequal” in the Catholic Church to this day. Could it be that this very injustice distorts the “true face” of the Church?

O Lord—how long?

[1] In fact, the sources are largely silent about the ordination of women to priestly ministry in the greater church; as things stand today, it seems unlikely.

[2] Comprehensive studies on this subject are fundamental works by Arnold Angenendt, Geschichte der Religiosität im Mittelalter, Darmstadt 22000; and most recently Ders. Ehe, Liebe und Sexualität im Christentum. Von den Anfängen bis heute, Munich 2015; Church historian Hubertus Lutterbach sums up: “Ab dem vierten Jahrhundert setzte sich das Ideal der kultischen Reinheit massiv durch und umfasste alle Bereiche des Alltags.” From this, he says, a “leistungsorientierte Verzichtsspiritualität” developed among clerics: ” Je höher der Verzicht, umso höher das Maß an kultischen Reinheit.” See: (accessed Nov. 08, 2017); in Ders, Fatale Sakralität, in: HK 4/2020, 43-47 (here 43), he argues for “diese Entwicklung zurückzudrehen.“

[3] In an interview with AMERICA magazine (Nov. 28, 2022), Pope Francis has reaffirmed the traditional patrine principle (of ministry and therefore male) and the Marian (female) principle.

[4] John XXIII, Enzyklika Pacem in Terris (1963) 41.

[5] Francis, Postsynodales Schreiben Querida Amazonia (2020) 101.

[6] She received the Herbert Haag Award for Freedom and Humanity in the Church in 2011.

[7] John Paul II, Apostolisches Schreiben Ordinatio Sacerdotalis (1994) zitiert in Nr. 3 aus der Erklärung der Kongregation für die Glaubenslehre Inter Insigniores (1976) 6.

Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith

Baptized in the Ecclesial Faith:
Notes on the Practice of Initiation in Catholic Austria

In the forty-day period before Easter, Christians are required to remember their Baptism and renew their lives. Thus they are heirs of baptismal candidates and penitents, who in early church times were accompanied by congregations in solidarity on the way to their reception or (having been excommunicated or otherwise separated) to their readmission into the church. After the normalization of the baptism of infants and later the Sacrament of Confession, the experience of ancient candidates and penitents was largely lost in the Western church.

New (Restored) Ways to Baptism
Almost 50 years ago, however, the liturgical reform initiated by the Second Vatican Council restored the catechumenate for adult baptismal candidates and school-age children. The renewed liturgical books thereafter offer a number of celebrations that structure, accompany, and support an independent person becoming a Christian. Like the Council Fathers, it seemed to the German-speaking bishops to be a “sign of the times” to at least supplement the dwindling family transmission of the faith with an initiation into the Christian faith appropriate for adults. Moreover, a considerable need for evangelization was recognized in the formerly communist eastern part of Germany. In traditionally Catholic Austria, there seemed to be no need for this (for the time being), but the numbers of (formal and legal) church resignations indicate more and more clearly the end of the popular church. Does this also mean the end of the baptism of infants and young children, which had been a matter of course since the fourth century? Only the Augustinian doctrine of the peccatum originale had made its triumphant advance possible and at the same time inscribed the fear of possibly unbaptized deceased children into the Catholic DNA. Have we followed these new (restored) paths to Baptism in this conciliar age?

A survey of pastors responsible for Baptism conducted throughout Austria in the summer of 2021 inquired whether the preparation of adults (and schoolchildren) for their incorporation has found its way into parish practice. This is not least in order to be prepared for church life in a changed social form. The memory of one’s own Baptism could be an important source for this, because Christian self-confidence is based on it; nowhere else can the transformation of humans into “new creation” be experienced in the flesh with comparable intensity and symbolic density.

It is not without reason that Baptism and the Eucharist are regarded as those sacramental celebrations without which there is no church. And yet many (in my homeland, the vast majority of) baptized people have no memory of their becoming Christian – so how are they to “commemorate” this event without any reference to experience?

Sobering Results
The results of the survey are sobering: in many places, due to lack of interest and opportunity, the question of the use of the renewed liturgical books and catechumenal celebrations does not even arise. In addition, there are deficits in the liturgical education of parish clergy and laity, as well as a need for improvement in the (structural) cooperation of those responsible. Only rarely do those responsible express regret about this; what someone doesn’t know won’t hurt – or even affect – them.

Despite declining numbers of Baptisms, infant Baptism is still a natural practice – whether for the sake of older relatives or “because it’s what we do” – without distinction as to whether parents are believers or agnostic believing or agnostic or whether parents who are less rather than more interested in church life bring their child to be baptized. To refuse or postpone a sacramental celebration with at least a minimal disposition is problematic under church law and frowned upon for pastoral reasons. After an obligatory baptismal interview with the pastor, the date of Baptism is arranged – preferably on Saturdays, Sundays or holidays – according to the wishes of many parents and pastors, and almost always outside of parish services. This is seen as an opportunity to respond to individual parental wishes and to show a family-friendly face of the church. Most church leaders also see a greater pastoral opportunity in the family celebration than in families being forced into a worshipping assembly unfamiliar to them on a random Sunday.

The Easter Vigil is the first choice for Baptism only in connection with the initiation of adolescents or adults; for younger unbaptized children of school age, the preparation time for the First Eucharist (usually at the age of 8) or its celebration is increasingly offered to mirror the baptismal preparation of older candidates.

In the rare case of an impending adolescent or adult Baptism, by far the most common celebration with parish participation is the admission to the catechumenate through the Rite of Election, followed by presentations, anointings, blessings, scrutinies, and the Ephphetha rite. However, local congregations only participate in the Rite of Election with the bishop in the case of asylum seekers or those entitled to asylum. The opportunity for mystagogical deepening of the experience with the newly baptized is almost never taken.

Celebrations that (can) take place within the framework of the usual parish Mass are much more frequent than those that would have to be scheduled separately in the parish calendar in terms of time or place. On the whole, interest is concentrated on the intensive period of preparation at its beginning and diminishes in the course of time. The initiation itself is then the climax and almost always the conclusion of the joint activity of the neophytes and their companions.

The focus of content during the catechumenate is mostly on knowledge of the Bible, the Ten Commandments, the most important church dogmas, and the church year. The liturgy, on the other hand, as the primary place of learning the faith, was mentioned only once in the survey responses, “so that the preparation of the (mostly foreign-language) catechumen can take place not only theoretically, but with all the senses.” Unfortunately, this fits in with the fact that in some places the various liturgical books are so little known (or unavailable) even to clergy that even a school child is baptized using the infant baptismal rite without this being noticed.

Lastly, pastors were asked for their assessment of whether and how the participation of baptized believers in the process of forming other Christian might affect their own baptismal awareness. Where this experience is lacking, a possible effect is judged skeptically and is also not missed; where, on the other hand, adult Baptisms can be witnessed, a positive influence that spiritually enriches all involved is evident.

Despite dedicated efforts at the diocesan level, the incorporation of adults is not an issue for Austria’s Catholics: it is considered a minority program, “for others,” meaning primarily migrants and asylum seekers. Even for those responsible (mostly lay people) who enthusiastically accompany people to Baptism, it is hardly considered in these circles to delay the baptism of a child. Do Christian parents see no added value in their children’s personal “yes” to the faith? Precisely because they consciously want to introduce them to Christian church life? Shouldn’t they have a special interest in allowing their children to remember and internalize their own, mature decision for the faith and its celebration?

One Baptism – Two Sacraments?
Admittedly, the incorporation of adolescents and adults into the church achieves no differing results in terms of church law and dogma than the baptism of young children: namely, the officially established membership in the church. This alone, however, does not make the newness of life visible.

Some differences between the two baptismal rites, on the other hand, are so serious as if they were two completely different sacraments: For whom is which path to Baptism open? On what terms does someone become a “new creation” (2 Cor 51:7; Gal 6:15)? Ontologically-essentially or existentially? Is the candidate for Baptism the subject or object of the celebration? Both models of incorporation into the church stand abruptly side by side and are applied in completely different life situations. Their partly common ritual repertoire is based on their own anthropological and theological premises, which are difficult to reconcile. Can personal faith be indispensable in one case and completely irrelevant in another? Can the same rites and symbols be meaningful and at the same time be applied to affected people who cannot grasp them? In particular, those sacramental observances that (should) constitute and give rise to Christian existence and church life?

The paradigmatic reception of a sacrament without constitutive participation of one’s own may have been plausible at one time, but “an ecclesial practice that attends only to validity damages the sacramental organism of the Church, because it reduces it to one of its essential aspects.”[1] The culture of sacramental celebration is still suffering from this today. But if “as an essential constituent, sacramental logic includes the free response, the acceptance of God’s gift, in a word: faith – however incipient that faith may be, especially in the case of Baptism,”[2] why is there no mention of this in the later statements of the International Theological Commission on (infant) Baptism? Rather, “it is emphasized that the faith in which we are baptized is the ecclesial faith” because “on this occasion, the parents act as representatives of the Church, which welcomes these children into her bosom.”[3]

Toward the Annual Celebration of Easter
“Lent is a preparation for the celebration of Easter. For the Lenten liturgy disposes both catechumens and the faithful to celebrate the paschal mystery: catechumens, through the several stages of Christian initiation; the faithful, through reminders of their own baptism and through penitential practices.”[4]

The most intense baptismal memory remains connected with participation in the baptism of others. Every baptismal celebration therefore requires special care in dealing with the symbolic acts of language and signs and a corresponding not only catechetical but also mystagogical attention to the salvation events celebrated. In fact, the latter does not take place in the German-speaking world. There is some willingness to experience ‘foreign’ baptisms in the Catholic milieu there, but without any interest in consequences for the ‘domestic’ practice. The sensus fidei fidelium remains traditional and clearly states: children of Catholic parents should be baptized immediately. The possible inclusion of even newborn children in the catechumenate is not an attractive (because it’s too strenuous?) alternative. The argument often put forward in favor of early baptism, that unbaptized children do not come into contact with the Christian faith, is in any case not valid. By no means are all baptized children are brought up in the faith of the church or even learn about it. Conversely, Christian parents will exemplify their faith to their children and introduce them to it. Moreover, after their admission to the catechumenate, the Church has a special obligation to them, because they are joined “in a special way to it [cf. the Church …] which already cherishes them as its own” and “already grants them various prerogatives which are proper to Christians.”[5]

Instructive History?
The pronounced dichotomy of baptismal practice is admittedly not unprecedented. Already in late antiquity, the church in Palestine of the fourth and fifth centuries knew the demanding and elaborate cathedral baptismal ritual (which required an orderly ecclesiastical administration) and a strongly simplified baptismal ritual without detailed catechesis, which suited the rural, often nomadic majority population.[6] Situational variants are also found in the early medieval Roman sacramentaries: the full form integrated into the church year as an introduction to church and society under episcopal direction, as well as other shortened forms – for the sick and dying, for example – with a ritual reduced to what was necessary for salvation.[7]  For the baptism of infants, which were performed as a matter of course in parish churches throughout the year, the rites of catechumenate and incorporation had already grown together into a “monster of liturgy”[8] with no connection to life. Who experienced which ceremony depended on life circumstances or social position.

Contemporary baptismal practice fits easily into this historical finding: It, too, can be celebrated rite et recte in more than one way, validly and permissibly, according to the situation. Wouldn’t it therefore also make sense to have a more adequate rituality for the respective setting? In the case of infants and young children, it could be limited to the marking with the sign of the cross and the core action with the water (infusion or immersion), which vouches for the promise of salvation according to Rom 6:5. Symbols strung together additively, whose theological, Christological, pneumatological, anthropological, soteriological, and ecclesiological implications that cannot even be approximated at this stage of life are wasted in the child’s experience. These richer symbols and rituals might follow later at one or more occasions, according to the individual’s journey of faith. Don’t the promises associated with initiation of participation in the threefold office of Christ as king, priest, and prophet, in spiritual anointing and enlightenment, in being clothed with the paschal existence of the Risen One, deserve to be heard and accepted in the flesh? How else should baptism be “remembered”?

Important decisions in life require also otherwise in life more than the agreement of two dates. Taking time for this and granting time to each other shows the greatest possible respect for the freedom of faith and decision of others and recognizes their serious efforts to find their own vocation.

[1] International Theological Commission, The reciprocity between faith and sacraments in the sacramental economy, Nr. 66.

[2] Ibid., 67.

[3] Ibid., 91.

[4] General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, Nr. 27.

[5] Codex iuris canonici 1983, can. 206 §1+§ 2.

[6] See the Study by Juliette Day, Baptism in Early Byzantine Palestine 325–451, Cambridge 1999.

[7] Cf. Bruno Kleinheyer, “Die Feier der Taufe seit dem Frühmittelalter,” in: GDK 7,1 Sakramentliche Feiern I: Die Feiern der Eingliederung in die Kirche, Regensburg 1989, S. 96 –135.

[8] August Jilek, Eintauchen, Handauflegen, Brotbrechen: Eine Einführung in die Feiern von Taufe, Firmung und Erstkommunion, Regensburg 1996, S. 107.

How to Sanctify the World

Since 1584, the faithful have heard these words on Christmas before the Mass during the Night in the announcement of the birth of Christ according to the Martyrologium Romanum :

Iesus Christus, aeternus Deus aeternique Patris filius,
mundum volens adventu suo piissimo consecrare…

Rendered in the current English translation:

Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
desiring to consecrate the world by his most loving presence.

While the calculation of dates in the Martyrologium, formerly based on ancient ‘historical’ dating of events stemming from late antiquity and the Middle Ages, was adapted to the current state of knowledge with the renewed text of 2004, this key phrase remained the same: Mundum volens consecrare.

Wouldn’t “save” or “redeem” have been far enough? Consecrare (as well as the closely related sanctficare) derives from the Latin sacer, meaning “divine,” “justified,” “consecrated/cursed,” “sacral.” It means set apart for the sacred, reserved for God as the only possibility of encountering the Holy One. The “profane” (from the Latin pro fanum, meaning “before the sanctuary”), on the other hand, is the realm of the non-divine, the worldly, and ultimately of sin. So did Christ come into the world to make it a sanctuary as such? To transform it into a place where humans can draw near to God, where God can be recognized and honored?

According to Council theologian Herbert Vorgrimler, Christianity carries out its existence in the world, and thus does not need a sacred realm removed from the world in order to communicate with God:

“The central ‘cultic’ performance of Christianity, the Eucharist, in which the ‘profane’ life and death of Jesus are made present and impulses of the Holy Spirit are gained for life under the promises of God’s reign in the world, is not a sacral act in which a matter or persons become ‘worldless.’ All the less can ecclesiastical persons and institutions, which are always also shaped by the ‘spirit of the world’ and cannot deny this at all, become sacral. The two terms [cf. sacral and profane] can therefore contribute nothing to the clarification of the Christian understanding of the world and of itself.” [1]

Loosely translated into the poetry of Josef Philipp Neumann set to music by Franz Schubert, this reads, “In all places is your temple, where the heart devoutly consecrates itself to you.”[2] Yet we erect church buildings and reserve places, devices, and times ‘for’ God – or more aptly for us to appear before God as his people. Terms such as sanctify, bless, consecrate, etc., are familiar to us in the worship life of the church, as is the liturgical treatment of the sacred in sacramental celebrations. So where is the sacred to be found? In a world that is able to recognize it only as created people can do?

“In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28) says Paul at the Aeropagus about the “unknown God.” Neither does the liturgy add anything to this omnipresence nor (and certainly not) does it dispose of it. Its proprium is that God makes himself perceptible to the celebrators in the here and now. This “special” presence[3] requires special creaturely conditions, for example the time: “distinguished” by God they are “holy/sanctified” (cf. Genesis 2:3); humans on the other hand “offer” (Latin offere).[4] That this offering (Latin oblatio) of gifts for blessing is also called “blessing,” “consecration,” or “benediction” reveals both the speech act and the effect of their (temporary or permanent) separation and offering, but not the power of disposal over them. The Jewish blessing (beracha) permits humans the use and enjoyment of God-thanked gifts; the Christian blessing in turn intends to consciously appropriate something or someone to God – the two sides of the same encounter event between giver and recipient. Moreover, consecratio can denote both the event of sanctification and the sanctified itself. “Sanctification” is thus an equivocal term primarily for God’s working of the Spirit both on elements and people and through them. The (not only in German) on the one hand imprecise terminology lets on the other hand many dimensions resonate.

Liturgy: God’s Sacred Dialogue with Humanity
As a place of encounter, liturgy is “holy ground” (cf. Ex 3:5) – not an exclusive, but a privileged place of knowledge and place of experience of the sacred, the sanctified and the sanctification:

“Christ indeed always associates the Church with Himself in this great work [the Paschal Mystery] wherein God is perfectly glorified and men are sanctified … To accomplish so great a work, Christ is always present in His Church, especially in her liturgical celebrations … In the liturgy the sanctification of the man is signified by signs perceptible to the senses, and is effected in a way which corresponds with each of these signs” (SC 7).

In worship “the sanctification of men in Christ and the glorification of God … is achieved in the most efficacious possible way” (SC 10). In particular, “the purpose of the sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and, finally, to give worship to God” (SC 59). And further “there is hardly any proper use of material things which cannot thus be directed toward the sanctification of men and the praise of God” (SC 61). In these and similar word pairings (sanctification-glorification, sanctification-praise, sanctification-worship, salvation-glorification, sanctify-glorify), the Second Vatican Council repeatedly affirms the dialogic-communicative basic structure of the liturgy, which, after centuries of cultic narrowness, again both allows and requires a broader and more comprehensive understanding. This also applies to the sanctifying acts of consecration (Eucharistic Prayer / “Hochgebet”) and communion.

Can one “increase” sacramentality?
Sanctification is accomplished in and through created things. The Bible testifies to the experience of God in and through his creation, which finds its climax in the incarnation of the divine Logos. Christ, in whom God has promised himself to the world, is the divine gift of himself, the sacrament/mysterion par excellence. It underlies the ecclesial understanding of sacramentality, for “what was visible in our Savior has passed into the sacraments (mysteries) of the Church” (Leo the Great in his Homily on the Ascension). This is especially but not exclusively true of the celebrations of the sacraments in the narrow sense (fixed since the High Middle Ages at the number of seven). Rather: “From the liturgy, therefore […] as from a font, grace is poured forth upon us” (SC 10), in that Christ gathers the faithful in his mindful presence to communicate himself to them, to bring them into his discipleship – and to make them similar to himself.

This happens verbally and non-verbally under material “sensual” signs (water, oils, bread, wine, ashes, light, etc.), whose interpretation as gifts of salvation is combined with thanksgiving (anamnesis) and the request for the coming and working of the Spirit of God (epiclesis). With Augustine, this speech act has received decisive importance: Not until the interpreting-thinking-petitioning word does an element become a sacrament. In a narrow understanding, however, the misunderstanding could spread (not only in the Middle Ages) that a correctly and permissibly spoken wording (of a blessing formula and also of the Words of Institution) would simply make “holy matter” out of things. The spiritual, and above all, the protective power, which was expected from it, led to the manifold use, and sometimes abuse, of blessed things (even the host). Such practices may be in the past, but the conception of the availability and feasibility of the sacred is still to be found.

On the other hand, blessed things want to reveal something of their hidden good origin (creation) and not-yet-finally revealed restoration (redemption) in a world experienced as contradictory. As symbols, they are “transparent” to the divine world and, by virtue of their material quality and properties, allow us to experience their own dimensions of God’s closeness and salvific activity. Whether being immersed, anointed, nourished, touched and clothed, whether morning light and evening star, fire, warmth or refreshment, whether sprouting, blossoming, harvesting and perishing, whether human being, element, living being, or any thing – in blessing (Latin benedicere, “to say well”), God is acknowledged as owner and giver of the blessed and the friendship with God is requested. Blessed things – as coming from God and belonging to him – are made explicit and become the “place” of his experience. This is how the Constitution on the Liturgy sums it up:

“For well-disposed members of the faithful, the liturgy of the sacraments and sacramentals sanctifies almost every event in their lives … they are given access to the stream of divine grace which flows from the paschal mystery of the passion, death, the resurrection of Christ, the font from which all sacraments and sacramentals draw their power” (SC 61).

What follows from this?

“The goal […] is certainly not the abolition of the [cf. their] distinction […], but on the contrary the right – starting from the individual performance and corresponding to it – classification in a stepped cosmos of symbolic performances, which make the one great mystery/sacrament of God, Christ in his life, death and resurrection in history perceptible and experienceable: in the different situations of life and in the different areas of the world – above all also […] the material, bodily world, which is the only medium of the experience and encounter of God. In all ‘sacramental celebrations’ the transparency of the world as creation, that is, as the place of encounter with the Creator, Lord and Owner of the world, can be experienced symbolically, admittedly in graded spiritual density and intensity. At the center of this multiplicity of symbolic acts are the church-founding acts of baptism and Eucharist, from which and toward which all others are to be understood.”[5]

What is the aim of this encounter – the heart of any act of worship? It works no less than the sanctification, consecration, and transformation of our existence.

Consecrated by Baptism
The irreversible beginning from God for an existence as a Christ-shaped “saint” is set in baptism: “The baptized, by regeneration and the anointing of the Holy Spirit, are consecrated as a spiritual house and a holy priesthood“ (LG 10). An interpretation of what consecrantur means here is given by Paul in Romans 6:5, when he literally speaks of “growing together with Christ in the likeness of his death and in that of his resurrection.” This sanctifying growing together with the divine (Latin con and sacer) determines and enables – “consecrates” – a paschal life in the Risen One and with Him: spiritually-open-hearted (“prophetic”), carefully-caring (“royal”), and ready to give oneself for the sake of others (“priestly”). Those “consecrated” in baptism are dedicated and appropriated to God.

Consecration by Eating the Lord’s Supper
“Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall …“ At the latest with these words, Catholic believers give their concentrated attention to the events at the altar during the celebration of the Eucharist. Many honor the special presence of the Spirit of God by kneeling. It is the ecclesiastically identified (for doubtful emergencies) “moment of transubstantiation” when the assembly almost holds its breath in the face of the visualization of the mystery of its redemption. But what is the actually breathtaking? Far more than the sometimes almost miraculously reduced verba testamenti. Admittedly, the experience of the unity of the consecratory Eucharistic Prayer is difficult due to its usual ritual staging, that is disrupted several times.

Despite this, no longer (only) bread, no longer (only) wine, but in it “my body, my blood, for you” are prepared. The earthly gifts received with thanksgiving, set apart and prepared for the Lord’s Supper, offered to Him in the praising invocation of God, filled with His Spirit, and destined for consumption as “the Sacred to the Saints”: “Take and eat, all of you drink!” The Sacred, yes. But to “the Saints”?

“The Sacred to the Saints” (Latin sancta sanctis) is an ancient Church exhortation, common in the Eastern Churches to this day, which invites the faithful to Communion. It affirms what the Eucharistic Prayer asked for and what participation in the meal will redeem: “Make holy, therefore, these gifts, we pray, by sending down your Spirit upon them like the dewfall, so that they may become for us the Body and Blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ … Humbly we pray that, partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, we may be gathered into one by the Holy Spirit.” Although these two phrases – unlike the early church model of the so-called Traditio Apostolica, which asks the faithful to be filled with the Spirit by receiving the Spirit-filled gifts – are separated from each other in the contemporary version, the invocation of the Spirit (epiclesis) over gifts and faithful remains a single one.

The transformation of the gifts is to bring about the transformation of the believers; those who receive Christ in the bite of bread and a sip of wine do so in readiness to be conformed to him. This communion is realized in the flesh, i.e. “perceptible to the senses” (SC 7) –  gratia supponit naturam – in the very symbolic acts that signify it: Broken bread, not solitary “self-bread” means and brings about, as sharing in the one bread and the one cup, sharing in the one Christ (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:16). To be shared in order to be eaten is the destiny (Latin substantia) of daily bread as basic food; the wine, on the other hand, is a means of enjoyment and a symbol of the feast. They stand for “life and life in abundance” (cf. John 10:10). In the breaking of bread and drinking from the one cup, both the devotion of Jesus, who allowed himself to be broken for the people and shed his heart’s blood, and the eschatological communion of life and meal in the Kingdom of God are realized. Going to communion is a commitment to the Paschal Mystery of Christ, through which he has won us back to God, so that we may follow in his footsteps as best we can: Like him, we are to be nourishing, tasty and filling for one another; like him, quickening, inspiring and thirst-quenching; like him, generous and unifying; ready to share what we are and have, and to pour out our strength; ready to do so, yet hoping not to come – like him – bent, broken and bled to our limits. Our Amen underwrites our consecration, for “your mystery is on the Lord’s table: you receive your mystery” as Augustine in a homily reminds the newly baptized before they go to the Lord’s table for the first time, exhorting: “Be what you see, and receive what you are!”[6]

Sanctification of Everyday Life
“In the earthly liturgy we take part in a foretaste of that heavenly liturgy which is celebrated in the holy city of Jerusalem toward which we journey as pilgrims” (SC 8). Worship is that time set apart, sanctified for the sake of human beings, reserved for the ritual-symbolic encounter with the Holy One. It is a foretaste of what is accomplished, but not manifest. Creation, long-suffering men and creatures still groan (cf. Romans 8:22). The liturgy neither relieves those celebrating of their concrete needs or problems, nor does it send them back to them after the service. Rather, it sensitizes those who celebrate to the sacramentality of creation, its permeability to the encounter with God in everyday life, at every turn, in good times and in bad. Humans can become aware of it and will reveal it with thanksgiving and praise (“blessing”). Whatever people “sanctify” in this way, they connect with their Creator and Preserver. Times, places, things, living beings, elements are not charged with self-effective powers, so that they could be made usable as means of magic or banishment. Instead, they proclaim in their own way how “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard.” (Ps 19) Not heard unless humanity understands creation’s message and makes it sound in its own languages.

[1] Neues Theologisches Wörterbuch, „Sakral“, Neuausgabe 2008, 6. Aufl. des Gesamtwerkes, Verlag Herder.

[2] As is still popularly sung in many Austrian parishes.

[3] Cf. Article 7 of the Constution of the Sacred Liturgy.

[4] Cf. Reinhard Meßner, “Sakramentalien,“ TRE 29, 1998.

[5] See note 4, 656.

[6] Augustinus’s Sermon to the Newly Baptized Sermo 272.

While Gentle Silence Enveloped All Things

While Gentle Silence Enveloped All Things:
Remarks on the Celebration of Christmas and Epiphany

This post is a translation of “Als mitternächtliches Schweigen das All umfing,” which first appeared in German at CiG 52/2021.

Since the lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 and their severe restrictions on worship, social and family gatherings, our concept of the full, two-week, liturgical celebration of Christmas seems somehow less integrated with the whole of the year. And that’s reason enough for a few moments of reflection on its faded message.

Read from Easter
The Christian faith stands and falls with the mysterium paschale (1 Cor 15:17), and thus for the Second Vatican Council it is the center of every liturgy (SC 6 and 61). Written down as post-Easter confessions, the four Gospels that have become canonical proclaim the crucified and risen One in their own way as the God-sent Messiah “from the beginning.” For this, they fall back on the experience of Jesus’s calling at the Jordan (Mark) or the pre-existence of the Logos (John).  The other two authors place the beginning of the redemption event with Jesus’s birth in his earthly life: one with the promised descent of Jesus as the Davidic Messiah for Israel and at the same time as the son of Abraham as the father of all nations (Matthew), the other with the extraordinary births of Jesus and of his forerunner (Luke). Of course, these origin narratives we now celebrate as Christmas and Epiphany do not retell the unabridged earthly biography of Jesus in every detail, but sing and celebrate his veiled divinity; not only for his sake, but for the sake of humanity and creation, for the sake of Israel and the nations.

Descent to the manger, to the cross, to Sheol
“Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.” (2 Cor 8:9; compare Phil 2:6f) The movement of dramatic descent connects Easter and Christmas: The descensus of the Crucified into the realm of death, in order to disempower that “last enemy” (cf. 1 Cor 15:26), presupposes the descent of the divine Logos into the created world, which is “his own” (cf. Jn 1:11). His coming occurs in the darkness of earthly life under the promise of the Father, “My Son are you, today I have begotten you” (Ps 2:7) – as proclaimed in the introitus of the Vigil Mass of Christmas. Thus, in its liturgical use, this psalm is intimately connected with the manger and the cross: in the Liturgy of the Hours, early on the morning of Good Friday, it interprets the death decree on Jesus with the antiphon “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and his anointed” (v. 2). Taken together, we hear that this destiny was already intended for the newborn Son (cf. Mt 2:16). In the Gradual Psalm of the Nativity Mass, God Himself reveals the Sonship of the Newborn: Tecum principum in die virtutis tuaeante luciferum genui te (Ps 110:3) as well as that of the Crucified and Risen One in the Vespers of Easter Day and therefore every Sunday: Dixit Dominus Domino meo: Sede a dextris meis … „The Lord says to my Lord: Sit at my right hand“ So also on every Sunday, the weekly Easter day.

Anthropology: Humanity exalted with Christ
“Your Eternal Word has taken upon Himself our human weakness, giving our mortal nature immortal value.” With these biblically inspired words (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9), the older Preface of Christmas III paraphrases the content of the Christmas feast in Latin tradition: A holy, even paradoxical exchange takes place, a sacred-healing bargain (commercium) in which those who cannot pay become rich! Perhaps as early as 336, the Western Roman Church celebrated the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25, a birth which has sanctified the world (consecratio mundi) and exalted humankind:

“Recognize, O Christian, your dignity! Do not, after you have become a partaker of the divine nature … return to the old lowliness! Remember what head, what body member you are! … Do not submit again to the bondage of Satan, for the price of your freedom is the blood of Christ.”

This is how Leo the Great († 461) interpreted the Mystery of the Incarnation of the Divine Logos for Christmas. The same is the mystery of salvation given in baptism: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) O admirabile commercium – What a great wondrous exchange!

In Jerusalem, on the other hand, the birth of Christ was celebrated as his Epiphany (Gr.: appearance) in the world “fitting for time and place.” On the afternoon of January 5, the faithful first gathered for a liturgy of the word in the open field to hear the Lucan pericope of the shepherds’ adoration of the child (Lk 2:8-20); then they moved to the crypt of the Basilica of the Nativity, where the Gospel of the birth of Jesus was read (Mt 1:18-25). Finally, the extended night celebration from January 5 to 6 was marked by similar readings as the Paschal Vigil: one heard the stories of creation, of the salvation at the Red Sea, and then the miracle of the integrity of the three young men in the furnace of fire. In the Eucharistic celebration in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre on January 6, the focus was once again on the Nativity story according to Matthew.

Universality: Church from all nations
Under the influence of the Roman liturgy celebrating the coming of the Word of God “into the flesh” (incarnation; cf. Jn 1:14) on December 25, the motif of “birth” also moved to this day in the Eastern Church liturgy in the sixth century, which until then had been dedicated to the memory of the patriarchs Jacob and David. The 6th of January, in the East formerly the feast of birth, now the feast of baptism of Jesus, thus drew as feast content (only) one of those three miracles through which the divinity of Jesus manifests itself before the world: the adoration of the child by the wise men (Mt 2:1-12), his baptism in the Jordan (Mk 1:9-11 parr), and Jesus’s first sign at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-12).

Only the antiphons for the Benedictus (Lauds) and the Magnificat (2nd Vespers) speak of the tria miracula associated with this day: “Today the Bridegroom claims his bride, the Church, since Christ has washed her sins away in Jordan’s waters; the Magi hasten with their gifts to the royal wedding; and the wedding guests rejoice, for Christ has changed water into wine, alleluia.” And “Three mysteries mark this holy day: today the star leads the Magi to the infant Christ; today water is changed into wine for the wedding feast; today Christ wills to be baptized by John in the river Jordan to bring us salvation.”

The faithful, meanwhile, celebrate a popular theology/poor variant of the magi’s worship of the Messiah (“Feast of the Three Kings,” named Kaspar, Melchior and Balthasar …). It is easy to forget that these wise men from the East are the ancestors in the faith of most Christians. Probably few baptized people today come from God’s people Israel and are therefore in need of the “light for revelation to the Gentiles” like ourselves (Lk 2:32).

Nights of Salvation: Liberated from the enemy of death, from tramping boots and bloody coats
In the Easter Vigil, the faithful experience the end of the reign of death as soon as they receive the tender light of Christ’s life; likewise, the Christmas Mass stages the darkness of a world in which many people  learn not the goodness of creation, but its calamity. When then the longed-for “light of men” breaks in, the darkness has not “overcome” it (cf. Jn 1:4f) – has it not recognized it, not grasped it or not been able to take it by force …? God’s promise (logos) is born as a child, dependent and defenseless and “he was crucified, died, and was buried,” rejected and defenseless.

He is, of course, the very same creating Logos – “the life of men” – who is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12f; cf. Eph 5:13). The same is also the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” who will put an end to violence, despotism, blood and tears when “every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire” (Isa 9:7.5). Whoever is just moved by the birth of the sweet child at Christmas is not looking deeply enough. For He is the same one of whom the Introit Dum medium silentium on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas sings:

“For while gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, thy all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne, into the midst of the land that was doomed.“

The biblical verse continues “… a stern warrior, carrying the sharp sword of thy authentic command and stood and filled all things with death, and touched heaven while standing on the earth” (Wis 18:14f) and identifies the descent of the Logos with that of YHWH during the night of the tenth plague. The liturgical text does not quote the text in full, but its allusion is obvious: The Lord comes into the corrupted world to end the rule of man over man even today. On him rests the hope of all whose nights are now lonely, cold, painfully and deadly dark. Christ, the Savior has come – so that man may finally become man in the image and likeness of God.

If I Summoned Him and He Answered Me …

“… I would not believe that he was listening to my voice“ (Job 9:16). This is Job’s bitter insight at the end of his futile indignation against the unjust suffering that came upon him. The “knowing” answers of his theologically educated friends seemed inadequate to him. Job’s question of “why” torments him (and many sufferers) no less than illness, pain, loss of loved ones, and social death. Then there is the question: Why am I suffering? Would God give me an answer if I asked him in my misery? And what answer?

At the expected end of earthly existence, Job is not the only one to ask about the finality of the life lived: about good and evil, toil and suffering, success and failure, right and wrong, bliss or damnation. In the Last Judgement, we believe, people come to the truth about their lives. It gives validity to their lives forever. The serious liturgical texts at the beginning of the approaching church year also remind us of this. It is no coincidence that they come from the last book of the Christian Old Testament and the last book of the New Testament and speak closing words about the end of life and the end of the world in the coming final judgement.

The promised return of the Lord – “Behold, I am coming soon … Yes, I am coming soon. – Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:7, 20) was once filled with hope for justice for all victims of suffering and injustice. But the pleading near expectation of the coming Christ has given way over time to the anticipation of the annual celebration of the birth of the child Jesus. And Advent, as its preparatory season, moved from the end to the beginning of the liturgical year. Only a few traces of the original eschatological Advent of Christ have survived in the liturgical readings. Have we turned our eyes away from the end because we do not expect anything (any more) of it? Is our hope now so small-minded that it applies to the historical entry of Jesus into earthly time, but no longer to his eschatological arrival and revelation, for which creation is eagerly awaiting “groaning with labor pains” (Rom 8:22)?

Answering questions in court
For centuries, the threat of judgement in the church’s proclamation has terrified people – and distorted the image of the biblical God fearfully into the grotesque. What will the judge ask me, how will he judge me “when books are opened” (Rev 20:12)? The images of damnation that the Bible, but even more so the frescoes and pictures of the Biblia pauperum, present to believers are inconceivably cruel and devastatingly final. The slim hope of escaping hell was tied to conditions that had to be meticulously observed. An extremely penitent life and the medieval Ars moriendi could help to avoid dying in a state of mortal sin. Not becoming guilty, of course, seemed just as impossible as being able to stand trial. Today, the liturgy for the commemoration of the dead, as well as the liturgy for death and burial, avoids everything threatening and frightening; it does not accuse nor indict, wants to save and comfort, allows complaints and questions. In this way, judgement has lost much of its horror, but not its necessity. For the questionability of life in its abysmal state remains.

But what if we too were allowed to ask, accuse, even bring charges against God? Allowed to do so in court and receive a different answer than Job? To bring a more comprehensive indictment than theological expertise has long considered conceivable? Surely neither the defense of God nor his justification by human beings (theodicy) is worthy of God, of whom Scripture says: “he Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up.” (1 Sam 2:6) and “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe, I am the Lord, who do all these things.” (Is 45:7)?

Why is your creation full of suffering?
The pastoral theologian Ottmar Fuchs pleads for the permissible reversal of the question about the cause of evil in the world, because it awakens new confidence in the judgement “on the living and the dead”: As much as human beings are capable and willing to do evil to one another (completely freely?) and to inflict abysmal suffering – God’s “dark” ultimate responsibility for a world, his creation, in which the experience of suffering, horror and injustice far exceeds that of freedom, remains greater. So may the responsibility of the Creator be claimed in the question: Why did you not create a world in which there is freedom from evil and infinite freedom for good? – in the certainty that God’s answer “will never be below the level of what was endurable in God’s darkness”.[1]

But was evil without alternative the price of the freedom of the well-created but self-inflicted fallen human being?

Wolfgang Schreiner undertakes an unusual attempt at thinking in his “Evolution Theology”.[2] Unlike Job’s desperation, Schreiner works from the doubts of the conscience of a natural scientist who seeks a plausible synthesis of evolutionary-theoretical findings and theological insights in harmony with Scripture. Where he finds common theological explanations for suffering – “Good becomes Bad?”[3] – and redemption seem insufficient to him, he approaches it “completely the other way round”[4] – and comes to questioning: the familiar narrative of the Fall charges man with the main guilt for the loss of paradise; but God, too, has a share in his “badness” through the punitive imposition of a burdensome earthly life. Are these concepts of guilt – some of which are literally (mis)understood – still valid today? Or could other consequences be drawn from the original narrative?

Are we redeemed from evil?
For if God set a beginning with evolution and gave free rein to its a-moral mechanisms of mutation and selection, it did not become a paradise, but highly successful in its wonderful diversity of species – until the emergence of man, whose intellect allowed him, as the first creature, to recognize and strive for possibilities for good and better beyond personal “success”: Their eyes were opened … (cf. Gen 3:5, 7). Here man’s suffering may have begun, for he too carries within him his “inherited evolutionary (behavioral) inventory” which brings him daily into contradiction with the ethical good to which he aspires. All moral principles, ethical norms and doctrines, the Golden Rule, the Decalogue, the commandment to love one’s neighbor and one’s enemy, etc., which have since been devised by humans and divinely revealed, seek to counteract this “inherited tribal guilt” of the attachment to evolutionary evils. The pre-ethical norms of his inherited nature, which give chance power over being or not-being and let the weak perish at the right of the strongest, still have man in their grip today. This situation needs redemption.

Has your suffering reconciled us?
Christians find redemption in the cross and traditionally interpret it as “atonement/expiation.” Just as the atonement rituals in the sanctuary made it possible for Israel to encounter God, the cross as an “expiation by his blood” (Rom 3:25; cf. 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10; 5:6-8; Col 2:14) reveals the truly “fallen” Son of God Himself, whose compassion endures all things in order to “draw all men to myself” (cf. Jn 12:32). Against this background, the above authors take their questions further: Is God himself atoning here “for the dust of death”[5] of his imperfect creation by descending into it in solidarity and taking upon himself the “sin of the world” – “the collateral damage of evolution”?[6] To compassionately stand by the people suffering from the effects of their descent and to give them “immediate help” to overcome it with the message of Jesus? And to ask us: “Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20)?

Whether evolution or creation: In our world, evil often trumps freedom, and people do it even though they do not want to (cf. Rom 7:15). They all become victims and perpetrators alike, and as such will be finally judged on the Last Day – “repaired,” restored, completed? Their questioning will uncover everything so that it may be illuminated by the light (cf. Eph 5:13), for “for darkness is as light with thee” (Ps 139:12). But the questioning of God, which seeks to comprehend this, acknowledges him as God no less than Job’s resignation before the incomprehensibility of the Creator. How would he not listen to our voice?


[1]  Ottmar Fuchs, Das Jüngste Gericht: Hoffnung auf Gerechtigkeit (Regensburg, 2007),107.
[2] Wolfgang Schreiner, Göttliches Spiel: Evolutionstheologie (Wien, 2013).
[3] Schreiner, 145.
[4] Schreiner, 143.
[5] Fuchs Ottmar, Der zerrissene Gott: Das trinitarische Gottesbild in den Brüchen der Welt (Ostfildern, 2014), 45.
[6] Schreiner, 172.