Easter Sunday is the 90th birthday of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. Born on April 16, 1927, he was a Holy Saturday baby, born the day that God is dead, the day of the tomb.
Joseph Ratzinger has lived his long life in a liturgical key, and it began as a newborn. In 1927 — before the reform of Holy Week by the Venerable Pius XII — the Easter vigil was celebrated in the morning of Holy Saturday. So little Joseph was taken to the church the same morning of his birth and baptized with the newly blessed Easter water. Born on the day of the dead God, he was reborn by water and the spirit into the new life of the Risen Jesus.
“Holy Saturday: the day God was buried; is not this the day we are living now, and formidably so?” wrote Ratzinger in one of his hundreds of incomparable biblical meditations. “Did not our century mark the start of one long Holy Saturday, the day God was absent, when even the hearts of the disciples were plunged into an icy chasm that grows wider and wider? And thus, filled with shame and anguish, they set out to go home; dark-spirited and annihilated in their desperation they head for Emmaus — without realizing that he whom they believed to be dead is in their midst.”
Ratzinger was born on the threshold of Germany plunging into that icy chasm. But the God who had been relegated to a historical curiosity by so many of Germany’s most gifted biblical scholars, the God whom Ratzinger’s countryman Nietzsche declared dead, the God of the children of Israel whom the Nazis were determined to exterminate — this God remained in their midst. God was in the midst of the Bavarian piety that nourished Ratzinger as a boy; God indeed had descended into the hell of Germany’s Holy Saturday.
Joseph Ratzinger, emerging from the horrors of World War II, devoted himself to the great question of God. Could he be known? Where could man find him? If he was not dead, was he a tyrant against whom we had to rebel? Or was he a Father who sent his Son to be our friend?
His project did not remain a purely speculative one, for he remained convinced that the God of speculative theology did not remain only such. He revealed himself and came to encounter us, above all in the two privileged places of revelation — the sacred Scriptures and the holy Mass. In defense of the reliability of the Scriptures and the divine action in the liturgy, Ratzinger waged a decades-long battle against the prevailing trends of ecclesial life. Such was his brilliance, though, that even when his positions were in a minority, they demanded respect. In time, with the prominence he gained as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and then as pope, his writings became massively influential.
It is plausible to imagine that 60 years hence, on the 150th anniversary of his birth, that biblical study of the Gospels will have been completely transformed by his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth. The celebration of the Holy Mass ad orientem will again be the norm. In 2077, Benedict will be recognized as a decisive turning point.
All pastors have to answer to God for their ministry. Benedict will have to answer for his decision to relinquish it, the utter innovation of a papal abdication absent a crisis. The Holy Spirit had heretofore never prompted the successor of Peter to do that, and it is not evident the Holy Spirit prompted it now. The public arguments offered for the abdication by Benedict are unconvincing; the results of the abdication are destabilizing.
Yet the man himself is serene as he awaits judgment by the Lord of history. He saw firsthand St. John Paul refuse to come down from the cross and admired that heroic witness. But he was convinced that God was calling him to a different path, “to climb the mountain ... to devote myself even more to prayer and meditation.”
The man who knows the great tradition better than anyone of his generation felt free to depart from it. Perhaps he saw farther than others into God’s providence.
The depth and breadth of the Ratzinger vision was manifest in an Easter meditation he published decades ago that focused on the binding of Isaac, who, as he ascends Mount Moriah, is told by Abraham that “God will provide” a lamb for the sacrifice. Isaac then realizes that he himself is that lamb and his own father is preparing to sacrifice him.
“The name Isaac contains the root ‘laughter,’” wrote Ratzinger. “And indeed, had he not grounds for laughter when the tension of mortal fear suddenly disappeared at the sight of the trapped ram, which solved the riddle? Did he not have cause to laugh when the sad and gruesome drama — the ascent of the mountain, his father binding him — suddenly had an almost comic conclusion, yet one that brought liberty and redemption? This was a moment in which it was shown that the history of the world is not a tragedy, the inescapable tragedy of opposing forces, but ‘divine comedy.’ The man who thought he had breathed his last was able to laugh.”
Joseph Ratzinger, who saw his share of tragedy in the world and betrayal in the Church, has lived long years alongside the “mortal fear” of totalitarian violence and a dying Church in his native Europe.
History may be tragedy, even a farce. But salvation history is a comedy. And Benedict has never ceased hearing — in the sacred word and in sacred music — the laughter. He has always been an Easter baby.
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