Benedict XVI at 95: Searching for the Face of the Lord 0

Towards the end of the Book of Signs in the Gospel of John, the Evangelist narrates an intriguing request from a somewhat unexpected source: “Among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. These approached Philip, who came from Bethsaida in Galilee, and put this request to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’ Philip went to tell Andrew, and Andrew and Philip together went to tell Jesus.” (John 12:20 – 22). Much has been said about this request by the Greeks, for, in the grand scheme of things, Athens embodies an unmatchable talent of what unaided reason could have achieved. The land of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, bequeathed to the Kingdom of Thought (to use a Hegelian phrase), an enduring intellectual legacy to questions that remain pressing today, at least for some: What is the meaning of human life? Why am Ihere? Do I have a purpose and a destiny? How must I live with my neighbor? And in a twenty-first century that increasingly finds the postulate of the self-sufficiency and autonomy of the human being in the world attractive, the philosophical tradition dating to the Greeks continue to keep on the radar, other essential questions: What is the source of everything? What is the possibility and meaning of change in my life? (Thales, Anaximander, Anaximenes, Heraclitus, Empedocles, Parmenides, Zeno, etc.).

Retrospectively, therefore, the desire of the Greeks to see Jesus could very well be a manifestation of the human realization of our insufficiency regarding the ultimate questions, some of which we have just highlighted above. The quest to see Jesus by the Greeks could be indicative of the limits of human autonomy and self-sufficiency. We have exhausted all our human capacities, and as the French philosopher Maurice Blondel points out, the wedge between the willing will and the willed continues to leave us unfulfilled and yearning for more. Human reason and all of human effort can only go so far! We need help from outside. And that explains the desire to see Jesus, for we are hoping that in Jesus, the absence of satiety that characterizes the human quest for meaning would be resolved.

Reflecting on the long and beautiful life of Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger/Benedict XVI who turns 95 today (April 16 1927 – April 16 2022), this quest by the Greeks appears to me a fitting metaphor for this shy and deeply pious Bavarian scholar. The desire to see Jesus, the search for Jesus in order to follow him, and to allow the self to be drawn into an intimate friendship with the living Christ – what Ignatius of Loyola variously characterizes in the Spiritual Exercises as sequela Christi, imitatio Christi, conformatio Christi and transformatio in Christum – is the defining leitmotif of the life and legacy of Ratzinger. To the gentle theologian from Bavaria, his date and day of birth is very providential, especially from a Christological perspective. In his Memoirs, Ratzinger writes:

I was born on Holy Saturday, April 16 1927, in Marktl am Inn. The fact that my day of birth was the last day of Holy Week and the eve of Easter has always been noted in our family history. This was connected with the fact that I was baptized immediately on the morning of the day I was born with the water that had just been blessed. (At that time the solemn Easter Vigil was celebrated on the morning of Holy Saturday). To be the first person baptized with the new water was seen as a significant act of Providence. I have always been filled with thanksgiving for having had my life immersed in this way in the Easter mystery, since this could only be a sign of blessing. To be sure, it was not Easter Sunday but Holy Saturday, but, the more I reflect on it, the more this seems to be fitting for the nature of our human life: we are still awaiting Easter; we are not yet standing in the full light but walking toward it full of trust. (Ratzinger, Milestones: Memoirs 1972 – 1977, San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998, 8).  

What is this “nature of our human life” that Ratzinger is alluding to? In a word, it is the sense or experience of the aid to fulfillment that comes from the outside, from the Lord, a fulfillment that left to ourselves we cannot completely bring about. It implies a learning to live with the reality of little daily hopes and contentment that point to the bigger hope that is ushered by the Risen Christ, a new beginning of a different kind of life. Conscious of our inability to attain the purpose and destiny of our lives unaided, we seek help from outside, while living in the here and now. Rooted in the earth, our gaze transcends the mere empirical and looks beyond the One that lies buried in the silence of a tomb. We await the help that is much needed to liberate us from exhaustion, diversion and indifference (Blaise Pascal). Holy Saturday, therefore, becomes a program for Ratzinger’s life, and hopefully, ours as well (Last Testament, New York: Bloomsbury, 2016, 43). “In a sense, the silence of Holy Saturday is filled with the mystery of hope. But this light is not without challenges, not without forces that are bent on blowing it out. Life is thus a drama between these two poles, these two forces seeking dominance over the human soul” (Agbaw-Ebai, Light of Reason, South Bend, IN: Ignatius Press, 2021, 28).

From a Ratzingerian perspective, these two forces that are present in the reality of Holy Saturday, what Augustine of Hippo characterizes as self-love (the absence of love) versus the love for God (the presence of love), can help us reflect on some pertinent questions today (Agbaw-Ebai, Light of Reason, 29 – 34):

Firstly, Ratzinger sees Holy Saturday, the day of his birth, as relevant to the question about the absence or “death” of God (especially in the context of the increasingly secularized Western world). God increasingly has less and less significance and signification. God appears powerless in the face of human concerns and other practical and urgent needs.

Secondly, Ratzinger sees Holy Saturday, the day of his birth, as relevant to the question about the hiddenness of God, God’s obscurity: “It is the day of that frightful paradox that we express in the Creed with the words ‘descended into hell,’ descended into the mystery of death. On Good Friday we could at least look at the Pierced One. But Holy Saturday is empty, the heavy stone of the new tomb covers the deceased, everything is over, faith seems definitively unmasked as fanaticism. No God has saved this Jesus who called himself his son. One can rest assured. Those sober ones, who may at times have secretly vacillated in their conviction that there is nothing else, they were right all along.” (Ratzinger, Sabbath of History, New Haven, CT, 2012, 147). Hence, Holy Saturday brings into sharper focus the question of spiritual darkness in our world.

Thirdly, Ratzinger sees Holy Saturday, the day of his birth, as pertinent from the perspective of the burial of God: “Holy Saturday, day of the burial of God – is that not in an uncanny way our day? Is our century not beginning to become one large Holy Saturday, a day of God’s absence, a day when an icy emptiness grows even in the hearts of the disciples so that they prepare for the way home with shame and fear and on their Emmaus journey, gloomy and disturbed, sink into hopelessness, failing to notice that the one thought to be dead is in their midst (…) God is dead and we have killed him (Nietzsche). We have killed him through the ambiguity of our lives that obscured him.” (Ratzinger, Sabbath of History, 147 – 148). Holy Saturday, therefore, is emblematical of a world that increasingly makes choices without God, a world that, presuming God is dead and buried, excludes God in decision-making. Holy Saturday captures those who see God as sleeping, a deistic conception of divinity, while the world moves on.

Finally, Ratzinger sees Holy Saturday, the day of his birth, as expressive of God’s solidarity with the human race in the experience of the crushing reality of death. The darkness of this day has something consoling about it, for God’s dying in Jesus Christ is a simultaneous expression of God’s radical solidarity with the human race” “The darkest mystery of faith is simultaneously the brightest sign of hope that is without limits.” (Ratzinger, Sabbath of History, 148). From a Ratzingerian perspective, therefore, Holy Saturday embodies the twin realities of pain and hope. In Christ, God has entered fully into the reality of human pain and suffering, descending into Hades. We can no longer make the case that God is ignorant of the human condition. God is able to save us precisely because God has a first-hand experience of what is means to be human, of what it means to suffer, to be betrayed, abandoned, defamed and crucified. A God ignorant of the human lot cannot save humans, cannot help us. Holy Saturday is a testimony that God knows what it means to be human, even to the experience of the tomb.

In all, from the Ratzingerian perspective, Holy Saturday captures the death of God, the burial of God, the absence of God, which, taken together, embody, in the final analysis, God’s solidarity with the human race. But this picture is not bleak and nihilistic, precisely because of the light that comes from the empty tomb. With Christ, there appears a significance difference and newness that offers a new lease of life, saving human beings from the temptation to despair, from the feeling of alienation and brokenness. To Ratzinger, the kinetic energy needed to effect the change emanates from friendship with Jesus Christ. This explains why seeking the face of the Lord, why wishing to see Jesus, is the overarching guiding thread for Ratzinger’s life, which he seeks to communicate to all.

From the experience of his life that has largely matched the drama of the twentieth century and the first decades of the twenty-first, Ratzinger is convinced that only in this friendship with the Living Christ can human beings find the energy, motivation and hope to live in joy in the present, a joy that prepares the present and opens it to a future, for with God, there is a future. In the Foreword to Volume I of his trilogy Jesus of Nazareth, Benedict writes that “this book is in no way an exercise of the magisterium, but is solely an expression of my personal search for the face of the Lord” (cf. Ps 27:8) (Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol. I, New York, Doubleday, 2007, xxiii). With Ratzinger, a master of theology (as Pope St. Paul VI described him in the papal bull appointing him Archbishop of Munich und Freising in 1977), the world continues to find a sure and steady guide and teacher in the school of friendship with the living Christ, the way, the truth and the life (Jn 14:6). With Ratzinger as teacher, the quest of the Greeks to see Jesus is made contemporary, as reason and all of the human lot recognizes its limits and potentials in the encounter with the Risen Christ, that Ratzinger continuous to point at.

As we celebrate Ratzinger’s 95th Birthday today, Holy Saturday, April 16 2022 – while reflecting on the significance of this day that the living Doctor of the Church from Bavaria calls our attention to as underscored above – today gives us the opportunity of the expression of double-gratitude: firstly, to God, for the inestimablegift of Ratzinger; and secondly, to Ratzinger, for cooperating so uniquely and dazzlingly with the grace of God, placing his fine intellect and profound faith, hidden behind a shy and unassuming demeanor, in the service of Christ and Christ’s Church, as a co-worker of the Truth. AllesGutezumGeburtstag, GeliebterHeiligerVater, und Vergelt’s Gott.

By Maurice Ashley Agbaw-Ebai