Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Edith Stein and the Cross
September 10, 2012, 9:20 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday September 9th 2012

Every day, at Morning and at Evening Prayer, we are offered two Readings, the first from the Old Testament and the second from the New. The first lesson reminds us of Christianity’s origins in Judaism; the second reminds us of the sad parting of the ways that now separates us from our Jewish brothers and sisters.

Currently, one of the authors I am reading quite a lot of, is Edith Stein; since 1998 canonised as St Teresa-Benedicta of the Cross. Edith, in her life and in her death, shows forth the unbreakable bond between the two communities, and tonight I want to take her as an example to us all.

Edith was born in Breslau (now in Poland, then in Germany) in 1891, the eleventh child of a Jewish timber merchant, Siegfried Stein, and his wife Auguste. Four of the eleven died in infancy, so in effect Edith was the youngest of seven. Her father died when she was two years old, and her mother took over and ran the family business, as well as bringing up her brood. She was a devout Jewish mother, but did not insist on ultra-orthodoxy from her children. Her ability was recognised even by other business folk. One was overheard to say, in the streetcar, “Do you know who is the most capable merchant in the whole trade in town? Frau Stein!”

Edith was a bright child from the beginning, and did well at school, leaving high school with a diploma with honours. She wanted to study and teach, and began a university course in Breslau. By this time, to her mother’s sorrow, she had effectively lapsed from the practice of her religion. Her ambition was to be a philosopher, and she pleaded with her mother to be allowed to go to Göttingen, to study under the great philosopher Edmund Hüsserl. Although the family was not well off, Auguste Stein did not hesitate. She always did her best to support her children, come what may.

Edith’s studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Great War in 1914. The Steins were fiercely patriotic, identifying themselves as German by nationality, Jewish by religion. Edith offered herself to the Red Cross, and after training as a nurse was assigned to a typhoid military hospital, where she devotedly tended first the sick, and then as the war continued the wounded soldiers. Although non-practising, Edith still identified herself as Jewish, especially when she heard anti-semitic remarks being made. She was a German Jew, a Jewish German. In this, she was only like the majority of German Jews, which makes the events of less than thirty years later so poignant.

Through her academic life, to which she returned even before the war ended, she came into contact with Christians, but knew little of their beliefs and practices. Visiting a Catholic church with a friend, she was astonished to see a woman come in and pray quietly. Neither Jews nor Protestants were used to going to synagogue or church except at service times. Visiting other friends, she came across the Life of St Teresa of Avila, which again made a great impression on her. She rediscovered her faith in God, and before long asked to receive baptism in 1922. She was drawn to the religious life, but her spiritual advisers discouraged her at this point. She continued to teach, and produced not only some weighty philosophical works, such as “Finite and Eternal Being”, but was in demand to give talks and lectures, often on the position of women in society.

By 1933, she was determined to enter the Carmelite Order, but with the rise of Nazism her superiors thought it safer to transfer her from her convent in Cologne to another in Holland. Her sister Rosa also was baptised (their mother having now died), and followed Edith to Holland, living as a layperson in the convent.

Early in the second World War, the Nazis occupied Holland, and began to round up and deport the Jews. When the Dutch bishops denounced this policy, the Nazis in retaliation extended their campaign even to Catholic Jews. On August 2nd 1942 they came to arrest Edith and Rosa. Edith knew what their fate would be. “Come, Rosa,” she said, “let us go for our people.” As far as can be ascertained, both women died at Auschwitz-Birkenau a week later.

Edith never forgot or rejected her Jewish heritage. She believed that it was continued and fulfilled in her Christian life. Even under threat of death, she continued to associate her self with “her people”, as well as continuing to think of herself as German. My first point, then, is that Edith, St Teresa Benedicta, shows us the importance of our Jewish heritage, if we are to understand properly our Christian faith. “Let us go, Rosa, for our people.” With full consciousness, Edith offered her life in union with Christ for the salvation of the people. The seventieth anniversary of her death was just one month ago, August 9th.

As it happens, today, September 9th, is the anniversary of the death in 1880 of Fr Charles Lowder, the founder of the Society of the Holy Cross, of which both Fr Richard and I are members. We are not sure quite why Fr Lowder chose this title for the society of priests he founded, following the example of St Vincent de Paul, to bring the Gospel especially to the poor and unevangelised, but almost certainly it was because of his understanding that to follow Christ and to preach Christ inevitably leads to opposition and suffering, and sometimes to death itself.

I would like to end with a short passage from Edith Stein’s final work, entitled “The Science of the Cross,” written in 1941, only a year before her martyrdom, in connection with the fourth centenary of the birth of St John of the Cross.

“Christ took the yoke of the Law upon himself in that he fulfilled it perfectly and died for and through the Law. Just so did he free from the Law those who wished to receive life from him. But they can receive it only if they relinquish their own life. For those who are baptized in Christ are baptized in his death. They are submerged in hislife in order to become members of his body and as such to suffer and to die with him but also to arise with him to eternal, divine life. This life will be ours in its fullness only on the day of glory.

But even now we have—”in the flesh”—a share therein insofar as we believe: believe that Christ died for us in order to give us life. It is this faith that unites us to him as the members are joined to the head and opens for us the stream of his life. And so faith in the Crucified— a living faith joined to loving surrender—is for us entrance into life and the beginning of future glory. The cross, therefore, is our only claim to glory: “Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” He who has decided for Christ is dead to the world and the world to him. He carries in his body the marks of the Lord’s wounds, is weak and despised by the people but is precisely therefore strong because the power of God is mighty in the weak.” (p21)


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