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The Cross and The Holocaust | Regis Martin | From the Prologue to Suffering of Love: Christ's Descent into the Hell of Human Hopelessness

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With the promulgation of Nostra Aetate in October 1965, [1] a significant milestone in Roman Catholic relations with non-Christian religions was reached. As regards Judaism in particular, a historic threshold had been crossed, over which not a few timorous churchmen at the time had hesitated to venture. Quite understandably, too, given so many centuries of impacted silence marked by episodic outbreaks of violence between the two traditions. "Since the foundation of the Church," observed Hans Urs von Balthasar in his book on Martin Buber published the year before the Council opened, "a dialogue between Jew and Christian has always been rare and invariably brief. Judaism shut itself off from Christianity, and the Church turned its back on the people which rejected it." [2] Can it be cause for wonder that, in the circumstances, relations between the two should inspire so little hope or confidence? [3]

But the Council Fathers intended to change that. In the great work of renewal launched by the Second Vatican Council, Mother Church, the whole People of God, were to return to the roots and springs of their past; there the encounter with Judaism was inescapable, rich, and full of promise. Exactly ten years before Nostra Aetate was to crystallize so much of what the Church had rediscovered of her origins relating to Judaism, Father John Oesterreicher, in a trailblazing first volume of Judeo-Christian studies called The Bridge: A Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies, anticipated the aims of the conciliar declaration. [4] Setting forth the journal's statement of purpose, he wrote: "A bridge links two shores, spans an abyss, opens a road for communication; it is thus an instrument of peace, as is this bridge, its editors hope." In other words, both he and the Council were pledged, in the terms set out by The Bridge's editors, "to show the unity of God's design as it leads from the Law to the Gospels--the unbroken economy of salvation. Never can the Church forget that the Rock on which she stands is embedded in the revealed wisdom of patriarchs and prophets and in the mighty events which dominate the history of the children of Israel." [5]

The Second Vatican Council was intended to enshrine and thereupon deepen and extend precisely this sort of understanding and respect for the shared patrimony of Jew and Christian. That the conciliar effort was one of unprecedented ambition may be judged by the comment of Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, who, writing some twenty years after the event at which he had been a participant, recalls the bracing and singular quality of the experience: "Never before has a systematic, positive, comprehensive, careful and daring presentation of Jews and Judaism been made in the Church by a Pope or Council. This should not be lost sight of. " [6]

Clearly the Council's significance for Catholic-Jewish relations was not lost on Pope John Paul II, whose extraordinary visit to the Major Temple on the other side of the Tiber in April of 1986 marked the first time ever that a Roman pontiff had actually entered a Jewish synagogue. (Even his saintly predecessor, John XXIII, had only stopped his car one morning to bless the Jews as they were leaving the synagogue.) Addressing this oldest community of the Diaspora the Pope marveled at how Nostra Aetate succeeded in midwifing "the decisive turning point" in the relationship between Christians and Jews by professing the profound and perduring bonds that exist between them. "On these convictions", the Pope stated, "rest our present relations. On the occasion of this visit to your synagogue, I wish to reaffirm and to proclaim them in their perennial value. For this is the meaning which is to be attributed to my visit to you, the Jews of Rome." [7]

It is worth inquiring, certainly, into the nature of those convictions that drew the Bishop of Rome across the Tiber and into a Jewish synagogue where, to recall the headline in L'Osservatore Romano, he gave thanks to God for the rediscovery of a common fraternal love. What does that love mean? At the very least, it implies an affinity between two peoples on the strength of which the old deicide charge cannot apply; thank God, that ancient canard of a specific Jewish complicity in the Crucifixion was finally laid to rest at the Council. While conceding that there were Jewish authorities who conspired against Jesus and sought therefore to arouse the passions of the mob so as to pressure Pilate into killing him, the text of Nostra Aetate is perfectly plainspoken in reminding us that "neither all Jews indiscriminately at that time, nor Jews today, can be charged with the crimes committed during his passion."

If we must speak plainly here, and here above all for the conversation with Judaism is charged with an eternal meaning, it was never Judaism that drove Christ to the Cross but human sin and God's answering love. "It is not Israel who crucified Jesus", writes Jean Daniélou; "it is the infidelity of Israel. And consequently, what caused the death of Jesus is, in the final analysis, sin. But then it is no longer Israel alone who bears the responsibility for the death of Jesus; rather it is the 'iniquity of the world' that it had taken upon itself. Before the cross of Jesus, we too must strike our breast like the centurion." [8] Here we are asked to accept an affinity with Judaism in which there can be no question of arrogant superiority but rather that complete and perfect solidarity in sin which Christ came and suffered to remove. "At this depth of mystery," concludes Daniélou, "all men are equal at the foot of the cross, just as all are equal in the salvation that comes through the cross." [9]

Under the circumstances, Christians are solemnly enjoined not to speak of the Jews as an accursed or rejected race, as if Holy Scripture had mandated one to do so. In fact, to so vilify the Jews amounts to an act of dishonor against Almighty God himself, for whom the Children of the Covenant are to remain forever a sacrament of his fidelity; the deepest, most abiding pledge that God's promised word, once given, will never be withdrawn. Here the conciliar text cites the Apostle Paul, kinsman by race to this people for whom he would gladly have suffered-yes, even unto final separation from Christ!--were the Father only to ask it. Paul's insistence on the truth of Israel's continuing proximity to God is unambiguous. It was God, he said, who called Israel to be his own, and "the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom 11:29). [10] In other words, if God chose the Jews, a scandalous choice in its particularity of this people and not another, why would he, having thus chosen, ever revoke his word, the clearest and dearest sign of his eternal solicitude toward this People of the Promise?

The glory of Israel is neither ethnic nor racial but fundamentally religious: for two millennia all the revelations of God were entrusted to it. Can such a thing be said of any other people in the history of the world? And not just the words of God were handed over to Israel; the unheard-of enfleshment of God's very Word took place within Israel, within the womb of the Jewish maiden Mary. No other people can say that from the loins of its very life there once sprang into human being the Eternal Word and Son of the Father. "In this alone", says Daniélou,
there is a greatness that staggers our imagination and reason. All other earthly greatness is passing. The great empires of antiquity have sunk into oblivion; their monuments--attempts to defy time--are merely tombstones of bygone civilizations. The great powers of today will decline in their turn, but Jesus Christ will live eternally and will be eternally Jewish by race, thereby conferring a unique, eternal privilege on Israel.'' [11]







But, it is sometimes asked, are there not then two Peoples of God? No, there is only the one Covenant; and Catholic Christianity, thanks to the blood of Jesus Christ, has been mercifully grafted onto its salvific trunk. "If the dough offered as first fruits is holy," announced Saint Paul in a sublime passage touching on this mystery lying at the heart of things, "so is the whole lump; and if the root is holy, so are the branches" (Rom 11:16). It cannot be well, therefore, for a mere wild shoot, so engrafted, to go about boasting of its good fortune at the expense of branches broken away; but if you must boast, adds Paul, "remember it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you" (Rom 11:18). [12] Abraham, in other words, is to be revered as our common father in faith; it is he who, humanly speaking, remains the source of that immense spiritual patrimony which joins our two destinies. How well the Holy Father traced this point of origin on the evening of his fraternal visit. "The Church of Christ", he told the Jewish community, "discovers her own 'bond' with Judaism by 'searching into her own mystery' [cf. Nostra Aetate]. The Jewish religion is not 'extrinsic' to us, but in a certain way is 'intrinsic' to our own religion. With Judaism, therefore, we have a rela- tionship which we do not have with any other religion. You are our dearly beloved brothers and, in a certain way, it could be said that you are our elder brothers." [13]

This is why, at the profoundest level, the sin of anti-Semitism stands condemned; why it is not lawful for anyone, especially not for the Christian, to visit contempt upon the Jew, or to countenance the least persecution by others against him. Spiritually we are all Semites! [14] This is why, more-over, that whatever sadly divides us--two disparate communities, nevertheless rooted in a common revelational source--the designs of our mutual Father in heaven cannot suffer lasting defeat." "For if their rejection means the reconciliation of the world," to quote those infinitely mysterious words of Saint Paul, "what will their acceptance mean but life from the dead?" (Rom 11:15). [16]

Notwithstanding all this, there exist between Abraham and Nostra Aetate two horizon-shattering events that, for many, would thwart even the superintending providence of Almighty God. These are the Cross and the Holocaust. [17] How, in the teeth of all the seemingly intractable differences of theology and history presently confounding our two communities, might these two events be joined in some creative and daring way, the nexus of which could well empower Jew and Christian alike to move as kindred souls in a common school of suffering? "Ultimately," writes von Balthasar of the mystery of Israel and Church, "they are two chambers of the one heart which beats, which indeed beats on the cross of the world, where the dividing wall was broken down and all hate was overcome in the flesh of the suffering Christ, so that in his person, the two are made one, in the single new man who is our peace (see Eph 2:14-15)." [18]

ENDNOTES:

[1] For the full text of the conciliar statement see Austin Flannery, OP., general editor, Vatican II: The Conciliar and Post Conciliar Documents (Northport, N.Y: Costello Publishing, 1981), pp. 738-42.

[2] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Martin Buber and Christianity: A Dialogue between Israel and the Church (New York: Macmillan, 1961), p. 12.

[3] And yet, von Balthasar reminds us, notwithstanding all the centuries of silence during which these two have lived entirely apart, "without ever coming face to face or trying to see what sort of person the other might be," their very existence "involves them in a conversation which it is not in their power to terminate" (ibid., p. 7). If the conversation to which, inescapably, Jew and Christian are joined, is to bear fruit that will last, "its range must therefore be such as to reckon with heaven and earth, and so it will always hark back to the conversation held on the Mountain of the Transfiguration, when the Son of Man conversed with Moses and Elijah" (ibid.). How could the Jewish-Christian dialogue, cast at such a sublime level, not then succeed in resolving our mutual difficulties?

[4] John M. Oesterreicher, ed., The Bridge: A Yearbook of Judaeo-Christian Studies, vol. 1 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1955).

[5] See "A Statement of Purpose", in ibid., p. 9.

[6] Johannes Cardinal Willebrands, "Christians and Jews: A New Vision", in Vatican II: By Those Who Were There, ed. Alberic Stacpoole (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1986), p. 222.

[7] "Let Us Thank God for the Rediscovery of Our Fraternal Love", headline in L'Osservatore Romano, April 21, 1986, pp. 6-7.

[8] Jean Daniélou, S.J., Dialogue with Israel (Baltimore-Dublin: Helicon Press, 1968), p. 8. See also Saint Augustine Enarratio in Psalm 65, 5 (PL 36:790-91), quoted in "The Mysterious Destinies of Israel", The Bridge (1956), 2:61. Writes Augustine, "My brethren ... we beg you to be on your guard: you who are in the Church, do not insult those who are not; rather pray that they may be in it. 'For God is able to graft them back' [Rom 11:23]. It is of the Jews that the Apostle said this, and so it happened to them. The Lord rose and many believed. They did not know Him when they crucified Him. But later they believed in Him, and that great offense was forgiven to the homicides. I do not say deicides, 'for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory' [1 Cor 2:8]. The slaying of an innocent was forgiven them, and the blood they had shed while out of their minds they later drank by grace. Say then to God: 'How tremendous are your deeds!' [Ps 66:3]."

[9] Daniélou, Dialogue with Israel, p. 8. For a striking confirmation of the above, see Jean-Marie Cardinal Lustiger's Dare to Believe: Addresses, Sermons, Interviews--1981 to 1984 (Boston: St. Paul Publications, 1986), pp. 3 3-94. Himself born and raised a Jew, Lustiger reflects deeply upon this mystery of shared iniquity in which all men, from Pilate to the apostles to the ordinary people, remain silent: "Everybody was compromised, including the disciples who were afraid and ran away. Such is the universal dimension of the cross of Christ. The Passion of Christ serves as an instrument of revelation of the totality of evil which exists in the world and in each one of us" (p. 87).

[10] Romans 9-11 remains as profound and luminous a presentation of God's word as any three chapters of Sacred Scripture. Von Balthasar, in his book on Buber, speaks of "the dazzling eschatological light that falls on Israel from the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Romans" (Martin Buber, p. 12). A light, however, "which had hardly been mirrored in the works of Origen before it was once again obscured", and no longer noticed at all. Perhaps the, as yet, unharvested hope of the Council will restore something of that light and so illumine the dialogue with its bright promise.

[11] Daniélou, Dialogue with Israel, p. 7. "The greatest saints of Christianity", he continues, "are Jewish: above all, the Virgin Mary; daughter of David and mother of God; John the Baptist, the precursor; Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus and protector of the Church; Peter, Paul and all the apostles."

[12] "The common link between the Jewish and the Christian understanding of faith reveals the following law: There can be no Christianity which is not a priori and inwardly, related in a deeply sympathetic manner to the 'holy tree,' as the branch is related to the root. Christianity is only the fullness if it is the fulfillment of something" (von Balthasar, Martin Buber, p. 23).

He puts it in its strongest possible form on pp. 108-9, where he asserts the following: "Jewish-Christian history is, at any rate from a Christian point of view, an indivisible unity. There is no greater unity in the world, according to God's plan, than that between the Old and New Covenant, except the unity of Jesus Christ himself who embraces the unity of the two covenants in his own unity .... Christianity when separated from the Old Covenant is always in danger of degenerating into Gnosticism, Marcionism or some form of Hitlerism."

[13] See, again, L'Osservatore Romano, April 21, 1986.

[14] Pope Pius XI, speaking to Belgian pilgrims, Sept. 6, 1938.

[15] Von Balthasar in his study of Buber provides an apt illustration of the point: "In Two Forms of Faith M. Buber ... carried his lonely dialogue up to the point at which, in his opinion at least, the only intelligible attitude was silence. His final conclusion was that the two forms of faith are irreconcilable. That judgment is acceptable in the world, but it is not one that invokes the grace of God" (Martin Buber, p. 8, emphasis mine).

[16] For a superbly rich exegesis of the above, see von Balthasar's Church and World (New York: Herder and Herder, 1967), pp. 166-76. His extraction of Paul's three theses from Romans 9-11 is particularly helpful: "First: Israel's obduracy enters incontestably into God's plan of salvation in its historical working characterized by election and reprobation .... Second: The reprobation of Israel serves to the election of the Gentiles who, as the elect, are the spiritual Israel and have their lasting roots fixed in the old Israel .... Third: Israel's rejection, as a factor of salvation history, points to an eschatological salvation common to it and the Church, in which rejection and election are brought into equilibrium."

[17] Throughout the book the use of the term Holocaust will refer to the historical event of Nazi Germany's attempted destruction of European Jewry between the years 1939 and 1945. Millions of Jews were targeted for extermination merely because of one man's murderous contempt for them. Concerning the specificity of this crime, that Jews perished precisely as Jews, it is important that it be remembered in all its ghastly particularity. In other words, while any number of things about the Holocaust remind us of other horrors, and men of the twentieth century have supped full on the flesh of their brothers, this particular horror is entitled to its own distinctive mark of atrocious human behavior. In fact, it is its very shocking singularity that provides the setting for the argument of this book. Nevertheless, for all its uniqueness and unrepeatability, the Holocaust is not, alas, so inclusive an event or instance of human iniquity that there can remain nothing left of man's inhumanity for us to lament; nothing of that iniquity the cumulative impact of which in our time threatens to undermine belief in the saving providence of Almighty God. Yes, the Holocaust remains (in my judgment certainly) the salient symbol and expression of demonic destructiveness in our time; yet it plainly fails to exhaust all the possibilities of human sin and suffering that continue to bedevil the human condition. Therefore, while the march of my argument particularly focuses upon the Holocaust as the chief symptom and example of that which needs most deeply to be redeemed, because other atrocities of our time as well evince that same need for healing grace that Christ came to confer, they too will fall within the ambit of the book.

[18] Von Balthasar, Church and World, p. 176. And not only Jew and Christian. Is not membership in the school of human suffering expansive enough to embrace every category of pain, including even those expressions of cosmic futility and despair that characterize much of twentieth-century literature? One thinks, for instance, of that doomed poet who fell in the First World War, Wilfred Owen, who left lines of such hopeless and bitter lacerating intensity that they amount to a kind of anthem of existential anguish and despair. "Futility" is a typical example of the genre, and the bitter question posed at the end absolutely cries out for an answer, one that-so the argument of the book will advance-only Christ in his descent can give. "Move him into the sun . . .", it begins,

Gently its touch awoke him once,
At home, whispering of fields unsown.
Always it woke him, even in France,
Until this morning and this snow.
If anything might rouse him now
The kind old sun will know.

Think how it wakes the seeds,--
Woke, once, the clays of a cold star.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides,
Full nerved--still warm-too hard to stir?
Was it for this the clay grew tall?
--O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth's sleep at all?

(The Norton Anthology of Poetry [New York: W. W Norton and Company, 1970], p. 1037).



Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

• The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• The Cross--For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
• The Jews and the Second Coming | Roy H. Schoeman
• Judaism Fulfilled | An interview with Roy H. Schoeman
• Jews Find the Sweetness of Christ | Roy Schoeman
• Benedict the Brusque? On Fr. Clooney's Vision of interreligious Dialogue | Carl E. Olson



Regis Martin is a Professor of Theology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and the author of several books on spirituality and theology. His other works include The Last Things, Garlands Of Grace, and Flannery O'Connor: Unmasking The Devil.



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