An Ecumenical Comparison of Niemoller's Maundy Thursday Sermon, 1945, and Rahner's Holy Thursday Homily, 1976
Borschel, Audrey, Journal of Ecumenical Studies
While there is no evidence that the two men ever met, Pastor Martin Niemoller (January 14, 1892-Match 5, 1984) and Father Karl Rahner, S.J. (March 5, 1904-March 30, 1984), shared much in common. Although they were born twelve years apart, both studied for ordination to Christian ministry during the 1920's, while Germany's political and economic stability was severely tested in the aftermath of its defeat in World War I. In the years following their ordinations, the Nazi government interrupted and restricted their work. Both heeded a call at different times in their lives to reach out beyond their denominations to seek unity and understanding. Both were known for their excellent preaching and pastoral care. Both died in March, 1984. (1) Both witnessed through the actions of their lives and their preaching that their deaths and the death of Jesus were intertwined in the last supper and the eucharistic community that evolved from it.
Their vocational paths and life experiences, though different, molded their preaching and theology, moving each toward a deep respect for ecumenism. Niemoller appeared to be motivated by his appreciation of ecclesiology and the power of Christians' working together, and Rahner was encouraged by aggiornamento, the renewal of theology and liturgy resulting from the Second Vatican Council.
By comparing and contrasting the selected sermons, I hope to illustrate how two very different people, under quite different circumstances, explored the mystery of the last supper and found meaning that transcended doctrinal differences. The messages were preached for the same liturgical occasion, the commemoration of the last supper, when each would have been expected to expound on the eucharist--Niemoller's for Maundy Thursday, March 29, 1945, near the end of his imprisonment in the Dachau concentration camp, when he was fifty-three years old, and Rahner's for Holy Thursday, titled "Jesus' Supper and Our Eucharistic Community," in familiar surroundings at Innsbruck on April 15, 1976, at the age of seventy-two. Preaching thirty-one years apart, both focused on the timeless challenges of the paschal mystery.
What Experiences Influenced Niemoller's Ecumenical Preaching?
Niemoller's family, military experience, preparation for ministry, active vocation before and during the Third Reich, and even his heavily nationalistic philosophy contributed to his formation for ecumenism. Niemoller's father, Heinrich, was an outstanding Lutheran pastor and preacher, and his mother, Paula Muller, came from French Huguenot ancestry. Heinrich's active ministry began in the Landeskirchen, as the regional churches of the Reformed tradition were called. These were headed by each state's princes, prior to the abdication of the princes and the separation of church and state that occurred with the formation of the Weimar Republic in 1918. Both father and son would experience the disarray resulting from Hitler's break-up of Germany's Protestant federation in 1933, with the institution of the Nazi's Reich Church. Martin's involvement in the opposition pastors' Confessing Church led to his subsequent imprisonment, requiring his parents to help raise Martin's six children, the youngest born after be was incarcerated.
After the war, Martin participated in developing the post-World War II ecclesial fellowship, Evangelischen Kirche in Deutschland (the Evangelical Church in Germany; E.K.D.), and eventually represented its member churches to the World Council of Churches. (2) Niemoller's service as an officer-cadet in the Imperial German Navy, 1910-18 (much of the time as a U-boat officer), until the close of World War I, initially seemed compatible with his Christian faith. However, during the war, Niemoller's logs offer glimpses into some of his troubling decisions, which, together with his World War II experiences, certainly contributed to his later pacifist positions, as well as a charitable regard for all people, even during war. (3)
Called neither to preach nor to study theology, he felt called to ministry after World War I because
belief in Christ as our Lord and Saviour and diligent attention to God's Word can transform men and give them freedom and strength. That lesson I had never forgotten, for my own experience had proved it to be true. I now became convinced that the best and most effective help I could give to my fellow countrymen in the national calamity would be to share that knowledge with them. That, I believed, would be a truer form of service than withdrawing to the depths of the country in order to farm. (4)
Upon matriculating at Munster University in 1920, he was exposed to several contrasting student political movements whose members responded to the deep economic and psychosocial turmoil resulting from Germany's defeat. He arrived with a broader worldview than many preparing for ministry because of his wartime experiences, engagement with the political process, and great disappointment at military defeat. As were other Germans, the Niemollers were negatively affected by the extreme economic conditions that eventually led to the Nazis' rise to power. (5)
On June 29, 1924, Niemoller was ordained in Munster at the Church of the Redeemer, with his father assisting. (6) Hoping to improve the Protestant schools, he was elected to the city council in Munster in 1929. He collaborated ecumenically with the majority Catholics, who also were interested in protecting their schools from deterioration at the hands of the Weimar government. (7) Niemoller was nearly forty years old when he was called to the Church of Jesus Christ at Dahlem, a Berlin suburb, as senior pastor in 1932, where he gained recognition for the quality of his radio sermons. During this time, Hitler was moving toward establishing a Protestant German Reich Church, which eventually was used as a political propaganda tool of the Nazis. Niemoller and other pastors opposed Hitler's interference, especially policies calling for dismissing pastors with Jewish ancestry from their posts. (8)
Niemoller showed interest in ecumenical collaboration by forming the Pastor's Emergency League in September, 1933, which led to the establishment of the Confessing Church, named for its common purpose to preach Holy Scripture and the Reformation confessions alone. (9) The Confessing Church, born at Barmen in 1934, opposed Hitler's policies. Through the efforts of Karl Barth and others, it grew to 800,000 members, from Lutheran, Reformed, United, and other churches, though its members and pastors paid dearly for their participation. (10)
On January 4, 1934, Bishop Ludwig Muller of Hitler's Reich Church published a document referred to as the "muzzling decree," which outlawed political activity in churches. Niemoller tried to have the Nazi-supported church official removed from office, but his scheme was overheard because the Niemoller' phone had been tapped. This led to further surveillance, followed by detention, house bombing, seizure of records, and ultimately imprisonment in 1937. (11)
With many Confessing Church pastors arrested and interned in concentration camps by 1937, Niemoller remained their only visible pastor protesting against Nazi interference in the churches. That April, Niemoller joined with the Roman Catholic Bishop Galen of Munster, who had likewise consistently opposed the government, preaching against the abuse that Catholics and Catholic organizations had suffered. (12) Niemoller, preaching at Bielefeld, forged an ecumenical bridge with Galen that led to an international ecumenical outreach from the Confessing Church. In his sermon on June 18, 1937, Niemoller said: "I truly believe I could join in common prayer with a man like the Bishop of Munster, whereas I find it inconceivable that I could ever go to the Lord's Supper with a 'German Christian' bishop." (13)
Niemoller was arrested on July 1, 1937, and was imprisoned at Moabit prison while awaiting trial. Although he was acquitted seven months later, the Gestapo held him in solitary confinement at the Sachsenhausen concentration camp as "the Fuhrer's personal prisoner." (14) When the Nazis heard that Niemoller had expressed interest in Catholicism, he was sent with three Catholic priests to the Dachau concentration camp in southern Germany, the Nazis hoping this would hasten his conversion to Catholicism and cause disunity within the Confessing Church. (15) At first, only the Catholic priests were permitted to hold services in Dachau in a cell that had been turned into a chapel for mass. However, a Dutch Protestant prisoner secured permission to hold a Christmas Eve service, which was led by Niemoller. After that, Protestants were allowed to worship together every four weeks. The Maundy Thursday sermon on March 29, 1945, was preached to this group of prisoners. Niemoller wrote at war's close: "I shall never forget our celebration of the Lord's Supper on Christmas Eve and Maundy Thursday." (16)
As one reads about Niemoller's life, one sees that Niemoller's Achilles heel was his intense nationalism, for which he was criticized severely in the press after the war for statements he made during Hitler's rise to power. (17) In addition, many were shocked that even while a prisoner at Dachau he had tried to enlist when war broke out in 1939. However, Niemoller later accepted the guilt for the millions of deaths of Jews and others, preaching that "the renewal of the church and the declaration of guilt hung together." (18) After the war, he was an initiator of the "Stuttgart Declaration of Guilt," a document signed by many church leaders in October, 1945. Niemoller began promoting uniting the Protestant churches in Hesse in August, 1945. As a "foreign ambassador" for the German Protestant church after the war, serving as President of the Protestant Church in Hesse and Nassau from 1947 to 1961, he worked to restore respect for Germany. He represented the evolving E.K.D. to the new World Council of Churches in 1946 and served as the W.C.C.'s president for seven years, beginning in 1961.
The martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer's efforts to bring churches together in opposition to Hitler's regime influenced Niemoller's ecumenism. He enjoyed positive experiences working with Roman Catholic clergy during the war, as well as his successful efforts to bring Lutheran, Reformed, and Uniting churches together afterward. Instead of dwelling on the doctrinal divisions, he believed that Christian faith "should not be a system of principles but a living, personal relationship to the Lord. (19) Transformed by his experiences during World War II, Niemoller became an outspoken and lifelong international spokesperson for peace, racial harmony, and ecumenism.
An Analysis of Niemoller's Maundy Thursday Sermon, 1945
Niemoller preached six sermons in a small cell in the Dachau concentration camp between Christmas Eve, 1944, and Easter Monday, April 2, 1945. While three Catholic priests also imprisoned there were permitted to celebrate mass in a designated cell, the Protestants were not allowed to worship together prior to a protest by Dr. J. C. van Dijk, the seventy-two-year-old former Dutch Minister of War. On Christmas Eve, 1944, Niemoller was asked to lead a Christmas service, which was attended by seven European political prisoners. After that initial service, the tiny congregation was granted the privilege of worshiping together at regular four-week intervals. After his release, Niemoller wrote the following in the Preface to his collected Dachau Sermons:
Our congregation, moreover, was almost as rich in denominations as in nationalities: Calvinists, Lutherans, Anglicans, and Greek Orthodox found themselves together here--nearly all isolated individuals who were cut off and separated from their religious communities as much as from their families and friends. What else was left to us than to put into practice now, as well as we understood it, the una sancta, the one Holy Church, and to gather together around God's word? Nay, what else was left to us than also to celebrate together our Lord's Supper? Indeed we did it, and all of us rejoiced with all our hearts in the communion that united us as disciples of the same Teacher and Saviour. To whosoever would criticize or even condemn this, I can only reply: "If you had been in our situation, confined for years alone without church services, without pastoral care, awaiting day after day for years the liberation or the end, depending for years upon yourself and your pitiful spiritual poverty, then you also would have wandered without fail to Cell 34 and you would have not excluded yourself." (20)
While Niemoller was familiar with and approving of the practice of intercommunion within the uniting church movement, his prison flock (which included Anglicans and Greek Orthodox adherents) expanded his previous ecumenical worship encounters. Thus, the comment about not excluding oneself has particular poignancy, for all concerned expressed spiritual needs that exceeded adhering to particular liturgical language and form. As Niemoller began his narrative sermon on Maundy Thursday, he recalled all that occurred on "the eve of that Good Friday on which three crosses were erected on Golgotha." (21) He described the meal as a "remembrance meal," (22) beginning at first as a remembrance of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt in the celebration of the Passover meal, then becoming an additional service of remembrance as Jesus exhorted the disciples to remember him in the breaking and sharing of the bread and in the drinking from the cup. Jesus "joins to the just-finished paschal meal a second solemn act." (23) (Niemoller's scriptural source was 1 Cor. 11:23-26 for the words of institution.)
Niemoller told his listeners that the imminent death of Jesus was the heart of the meaning of the last supper, and he recalled how Jesus had begun earlier in his ministry to prepare his disciples for his death. (24) As Niemoller prepared to celebrate the holy supper, he sought to erecta bridge of understanding in the midst of denominational and national diversity by considering these questions:
"Fundamentally what is it that gives to this celebration its unparalleled power over the human heart? How does it happen that in spite of all theological disputations and schisms, which have flared up again and again, particularly about this sacrament, the Christian community continues to break the bread and partake of the cup as if all this strife did not concern it at all?" (25)
With all that Niemoller had experienced in the war, he now found doctrine relatively unimportant. He approached the sacred meal in an open, nondogmatic way: "[T]he Christian community has long since understood that a miracle cannot be explained, and consequently it is better to abstain from the attempt." (26) For Niemoller, discussing how different denominations parse eucharistic doctrine would require so much analysis that it would defeat the teaching of Jesus: "If our salvation depended upon such a recognition, then the Kingdom of Heaven would be accessible only to learned thinkers." (27) Instead Niemoller suggested that the brightest might not understand, bur the simplest indeed might grasp what Jesus intended. He was clearly responding to his own transformation from parochialism to a broader ecumenism based on tolerance and acceptance of all believers.
Niemoller emphasized that Jesus revealed his coming death in the last supper in such simple terms that there is nothing required bur an "open heart" to be present to the celebration. (28) Jesus willingly gave up his life, sacrificing it to provide a gift for the disciples that they might receive life from his death. The bread and wine are a life-giving meal. Jesus' death is gift. What the meal evokes is a "communion of those to whom the Lord grants a share in his self-sacrifice." (29) This sharing body becomes the eucharistic community. As Jesus becomes united with us in giving his body and blood, Niemoller noted that the words "for you" are key because they help to explain the mystery of Jesus' dying on the cross. (30) Jesus died for our redemption. Instead of our dying, he died for us. With his death, Jesus established the new covenant, allowing "our punishment to be executed upon himself." (31) Jesus "dies in our place, the just for the unjust, the holy one for the sinners. And now we stand in his place: freed of all guilt and through him and on his account beloved children of God." (32)
With reference to 1 Cor 2:2, Niemoller said: "[W]hen the Christian Church wishes to give to its faith the shortest and yet the most unmistakable expression, it uses the symbol of the cross.... We know only one comfort and one assurance, Jesus Christ the crucified." (33) It is through the death of Jesus, the anticipation of Good Friday, that the Maundy Thursday commemoration of the last supper made sense to Niemoller. He was convinced that the last supper reality is not only timeless but also that it "does not lose any of its living strength with the passage of time. For in its need for God and in its longing for Him the human heart remains ever the same." (34) Niemoller described the way Jesus explained his death as "plain" yet "incomprehensible and in its depth unfathomable." (35) When people need mercy and forgiveness, the reminder of Jesus' death on the cross is a source of joy for the sinner because Jesus accepted this death on behalf of sinners.
Before his imprisonment, Niemoller's concern for the greater church was apparent as he worked to retain its integrity by keeping it free from government interference. He thought of himself as being part of a greater ecclesial community. This is demonstrated in his sermon where he prophesied about the permanence of the church and its central sacrament:
And when all the dead are once forgotten, the death of the Lord Jesus Christ will ever be preached and confessed by his church because there flows the source of its life, and the church will continue to gather around his table and confess thereby its crucified Lord in repentance for its transgression, in gratitude for his love, and in the praise of God for His inconceivable loving-kindness until--yes, until its Lord will come at the end of time. (36)
In his preaching for Maundy Thursday, he connected the little Dachau community of worshipers with the "great community of those who proclaim the death of their Lord as a message of joy." (37) The message was as timeless for the tiny eucharistic community assembled in the cell as it was for the early Christians. He made a subtle connection between these people and all who have suffered for their faith. The message of hope at being forever united with God and protected by God shines through this sermon, validating the repetition of the ritual that Jesus began, a remembrance meal that binds and comforts the community of the New Covenant.
The last supper and the sacrament over which Niemoller presided are about people and building community. Jesus stood for freedom for all the oppressed. These political prisoners praying together were like Jesus: They were freedom fighters as well as victims. Jesus' death is gift, and the people present at this eucharistic meal shared in his self-sacrifice, gaining strength themselves to sustain their hope. Likely, death would necessarily occupy everyone's mind in the concentration camp. Members of this little group of influential European Christians had lost friends through executions or illness, and all were very uncertain about their future. As political prisoners, not only was their freedom taken away, but they were also far from their families. Niemoller prayed for their families and for the people at the fronts. He emphasized that they were "at home" even in these awful conditions. He used the poignant image of the cross as "home," even a "home for the homeless." (38) "We eat and drink at the table of our heavenly Father and we may be comforted. There is nothing that could tear us away and separate us from Him." (39)
Niemoller's sermon is full of hope; it is a proclamation of the triumph of the cross. He articulated a clear and concrete theology that underscored the importance of the Maundy Thursday celebration of the last supper both as a preparation for Good Friday and as dependent on Good Friday. The reason to celebrate the last supper again and again is answered with the death of Jesus on Good Friday.
Biographical Sketch of Karl Rahner
Born in Freiburg, Germany, Karl Rahner was one of seven children in what he himself considered to be "a normal, middle-class, Christian family." (40) His educator father instilled the value of education, and all of the children attended a university. Rahner recalled that, as a youth attracted to God and prayer, he was influenced by Quickborn, a youth movement that he described as "more a grassroots than a church-directed affair. But it was still Catholic, religious, extremely active and intense. There too I was influenced positively in many ways that affected my future life, especially since that was when I first met Romano Guardini." (41) Rahner entered the Jesuit novitiate in Feldkirch, Austria, in 1922.
Of particular interest to Rahner as he began theological studies in 1929 were spiritual theology, the history of piety, patristic mysticism, and the work of St. Bonaventure. The study of Catholic theology between the two world wars was marked by rigid adherence to prescribed thought and prescribed language, based on simplified neo-Scholasticism and neo-Thomism. Rome feared influence by biblical historians, particularly from Protestant scholars, as well as from the Modernists, who tried to bring theology into the realm of culture and experience. (42) Such pathfinders as Guardini greatly influenced Rahner, who was interested in explaining Christianity as a religion applicable to the present and future.
Rahner began teaching theology in 1937 at the University of Innsbruck. Perhaps partly because he had distanced himself during his doctoral studies flora Martin Heidegger because of the latter's endorsement of Nazista, Rahner was ordered to leave after being served a "district prohibition" when the Nazis closed down the seminary at Innsbruck two years later. (43)
During the war years, Rahner served in Vienna as a member of the diocesan staff, protected by Karl Rudolf, a priest close to Cardinal Innitzer, Archbishop of Vienna. Rudolf documented Rahner's activities as lecturer and writer, including his travel throughout Austria and Germany. (44) Rahner demonstrated his potential as a reforming theologian in the scholarly response he made on behalf of Innitzer to a letter of 1943 from the Archbishop of Freiberg, who named seventeen alleged abuses in liturgy and doctrine. (45) Toward the end of the war in 1944-45, when Rahner was not permitted to lecture in public, he was appointed parish priest in Mariakirche, in Bavaria, where he cared for refugees, as well as local parishioners. (46) After the war, Rahner was assigned to teach in the Jesuit theological school near Munich, while also serving as a pastoral minister in that devastated city.
Rahner returned to the restored school of theology faculty at Innsbruck in 1948, where be began to publish extensively. Often his publications stemmed from lectures, although a publication was the basis for the homily I will analyze here. Some of his theological writings were challenged by Vatican representatives, particularly his statements on concelebrating Mass and the virginity of Mary. These difficult and trying times gave way to the tremendous affirmation he received in his role as peritus, a valued theologian called by Pope John XXIII to participate in the drafting of several of the conciliar documents that evolved flora the discussions at Vatican II. (47) In 1964, he succeeded his mentor Guardini at the University of Munich, but he left in 1967 for the University of Munster in Westfalen, from which he received emeritus status in 1971. Rahner was in residence at the Jesuit writer's house in Munich when he preached the Holy Thursday homily in Innsbruck, analyzed below. He remained there until he returned to Innsbruck's Jesuit University in 1981. Rahner continued to be active as a lecturer and writer until his death in 1984.
About his ministry of preaching, Rahner said, "I have always done theology for the sake of proclamation, of preaching, of pastoral care." (48) Although he is known as an academic, Rahner preached often in typical liturgical and retreat scenarios, not restricting opportunities based on the size or relative importance of the group. His sermons tended to use more accessible language than his theological writings. Harvey Egan summarized Rahner's philosophy of preaching based on Rahner's own writings thusly:
The summit of preaching is the proclamation of God's consummate saving act of Christ's cross and resurrection made efficaciously present in the Eucharist. Rahner emphasizes this inextricable link between the service of God's word and the celebration of the Eucharist.... To Rahner, the community takes place because of the Eucharist, Christian love, and the preached word. Preaching creates community. (49)
One of Rahner's greatest contributions as a theologian was his focus on the human condition and the human's questions and relationship with God. Influenced by trends in social and behavioral sciences, as well as his association with Guardini, Rahner preached out of a conviction "that Christianity shift its preaching somewhat from the 'vertical' to the 'horizontal,' that is, from the heavenly to the earthly--without betraying its own basic truths and falling into ah un-Christian pseudo-horizontalism." (50)
Rahner intended to preach the Tradition in a way that people of his time and culture would understand and internalize. He was a catalyst for a renewal in Catholic preaching at a time when preachers tended to ignore the contemporary culture as it intersected with the human condition. Rahner suggested: "There is within us a confusion of drives and possibilities, and we do not know which is the decisive one. How are we to understand ourselves?" Rahner's answer to his own question was to preach "a Christian pessimism and a Christian optimism," a concept developed out of the understanding of original sin and Christ's death on the cross for our salvation. (51) Our original sin is not personal, but collective: "[T]his codetermination of the situation of every person by the guilt of others is something universal, permanent, and therefore also original." (52)
It is interesting to hear this dialectical, existential side to Rahner's teaching, especially as he warns that Christians must retain that pessimism believing that the world is "permanently steeped in guilt" due to the free, but sinful, decisions made by those who have lived before us. (53) With great bearing on the Holy Thursday sermon, Rahner tells us that "the incomprehensibility of suffering is part of the incomprehensibility of God.... There is no blessed light to illumine the dark abyss of suffering other than God himself. And we find him only when we lovingly assent to the incomprehensibility of God himself, without which he would not be God." (54)
Rahner also wrote: "[I]t is the first task of Christian preaching to speak up for Christian pessimism.... because the Christian message is convinced that a great part of human suffering is caused by sin, so that ... to admit sin is the same as to admit suffering." (55) However, Rahner's teaching is also abundantly optimistic, and he counters pessimism with hope: "I believe that God ... will triumph over the stupidity of malice of humanity. God will not abandon us." (56)
Vorgrimler sees another dimension to Rahner and his view of Christian pessimism and optimism:
As often as Karl Rahner looked into the history of humanity or even into individual human careers he was filled with sorrow and even pessimism. The world of brutalities, the camps, the holocaust, institutional violence and oppression were not left out of his work or suppressed, and in the private sphere he experienced too much betrayal, lack of trust and failure to be able to set much store by human achievements. (57)
A contributing factor to his disappointment and pessimism was the fate of one of the Jesuit novices to whom he taught Latin in Feldkirch. Alfred Delp, a sociologist, was one of the Kreisauer group who conspired to overthrow Hitler. Arrested in 1944, he took his final vows as a Jesuit in handcuffs and was hanged in early 1945. Rahner remembered his friend as one in "the front ranks of those witnesses who were motivated by Christianity to resist the evils of Nazism." (58) They had worked together as theologians in Munich in 1938, and Delp's courage against Hitler engraved a permanent memory and sense of loss on Rahner.
Rahner's Christian pessimism, perhaps arrived at in part by studying the preaching and writing of theologians from the Reformed traditions, is balanced by Christian optimism within the great mystery of salvation that:
Christians, helped by God's grace, let themselves fall into the abyss of God's incomprehensibility and discover that this ultimate and permanent mystery of God's incomprehensibility is itself true fulfillment, freedom, and forgiving salvation.... They see that this experience of darkness of confirmed by the fate of Jesus. At the same time, in a mysterious paradox, they feel that this very experience is sent to them by God and is the experience of the arrival of God near them. The perplexity and the fact that it is lifted by God's grace are not really two successive stages in human existence. God's grace does not totally remove the perplexity of existence. The lifting, the [not being driven to despair (2 Cor. 4:8)], accepted anal filled with grace, is the real truth of the perplexity itself. For if it is true that one day we shall see God as be is, immediately, face to face, and if he is seen there precisely as the ineffable, unfathomable mystery that can be accepted and endured only in love, that is, in a total yielding up of self, then fulfillment for Christians is the height of human perplexity.... ... We remain the [perplexed]. And even the fact that we are more than saved and liberated [perplexity] remains mysteriously hidden from us (often or forever, I do not know). But even then the fact remains that our perplexity is redeemed. (59)
As an ecumenist, Rahner seemed to hold open the possibility of God's Spirit's working through even the most immutable doctrines. He expressed the idea that Catholic theologians must try to discover what about Catholicism turns other Christians away. Vorgrimler perceived that, since Rahner agreed with the sola scriptura principle--that Holy Scripture is in itself the deposit of God's revelation for human salvation--as well as sola gratia, then he would be a source of encouragement for Reformed Protestants who were seeking unity. (60) Rahner developed a very significant theology of the cross, similar to that of Protestant theologians of his time, which is readily seen in the Holy Thursday sermon (as well as in the theological discussion of this section). He forged relationships with numerous Protestants and Jews, attempting to engage the Catholic Church in ecumenism, preaching this necessity for dialogue toward future unity before its time. (61) As Niemoller was forging a union of Lutheran and Reformed-tradition churches in post-war Germany, so Rahner was engaging in ecumenical activity by lecturing at the first Conference of Protestant and Catholic theologians in Bad Driburg, Westphalia, in 1948. Eventually this process, discouraged at first by the Vatican, became fashionable during and after Vatican II, becoming the prototype for the Secretariat for Promoting Unity of the Christian Churches, which was started in Rome in 1960. (62)
Ah Analysis of "Jesus' Last Supper and Our Eucharistic Community
The focus of Rahner's Holy Thursday preaching is "the founding eucharistic meal by Jesus that we celebrate daily" and how we perceive and act on the experience of eucharist as part of a eucharistic community. (63) Using a journalistic and historical hermeneutic to organize some of the key aspects of the last supper, Rahner raises important issues for our consideration:
On this occasion we are asked to reflect more exactly about what the historical link was between the church's eucharistic meal and the Last Supper; about what Jesus actually celebrated with his disciples before his death; about how and why the cross and resurrection of Jesus are equally constitutive for this our eucharistic meal as its link back to Jesus' last meal with his disciples prior to his death. (64)
This homily was delivered in 1976, after Rahner fully developed his eucharistic theology during the liturgical renewal of Vatican II, when the community of the faithful was at last truly invited into the celebration of the great paschal mystery to become part of the mystery. This theme prevails throughout this homily, that is, integrating the passion of Jesus with the suffering and daily experiences of the community of faith. The death and resurrection of Jesus becomes one with the community. The community becomes one with the suffering and death of Jesus:
If we praise the eucharist of the church in this way as the center and highest actualization of the church and of our Christian lives, then we should not forget that this is primarily true of the eucharist insofar as, and "only" insofar as, it is the supreme and most central sign of unity with Jesus Christ in the church, which has to be received and lived in the midst of the gray ordinariness of our lives. (65)
Rahner connects the memory of the first eucharistic gathering with present and future eucharistic communities. Joined in faith, Jesus' disciples continued to proclaim Jesus' death, which took place once for our redemption and salvation. We continue to do the same. Rahner considers the eucharist a sacramental encounter with Jesus, a repeatable sign that needs to take root in our daily lives, so that we live in the context of the suffering and death of Jesus:
We must be able to encounter the Lord in our lives: in his scriptural word; in our brothers and sisters; in our love for them that comes forth without counting the cost; in the everydayness of our duty, which takes us out of ourselves; in our experiences of disappointment; in the taste of death which codetermines our lives; and even in our guilt. Only when we discover Jesus and his destiny in every dimension of our existence will his eucharist we are celebrating with him and among ourselves also really be more than a mysterious rite. (66)
This insight encourages the listener to seek God in the midst of struggle, to identify more with Christ's suffering and death, and to become more immersed contemplatively in the presence of God in the "gray ordinariness" of the world. (67) In presenting his sacramental theology in this homily, Rahner emphasizes how we are able through sacred signs to understand more of the mystery and to surrender to its power. In this sacrament, Jesus is present in his death and resurrection, and we are pulled into the mystery, so that its power will change us into his likeness as we interact in the world as members of the Body of Christ. When we celebrate eucharist we are asked whether we are prepared to commit to sharing in the paschal mystery. When we say "yes," the eucharistic celebration will effectively strengthen us to take part in that sharing "until Jesus' life, death, and resurrection are also brought to completion throughout all the spaces and times of our very own lives." (68)
Implying that God works in people despite their religious connection, Rahner believed that people might live sacramental lives without receiving sacraments. In a discussion of Holy Thursday, he wrote, "Many may perhaps meet the Lord in their daily life by faithfully obeying the transforming voice of their conscience even though they have not yet found the holy table of the Church where he celebrates his sacred meal with us." (69)
As I re-read this homily, I am struck with the beauty and perceptiveness of Rahner's language, with its deeply spiritual phrases. For example, Rahner spoke of the eucharistic community united with Jesus: "In it there becomes visible sacramentally the community of those who acknowledge and seal our promise to let ourselves fall together with Jesus into this unspeakable mystery." (70) He used the image of the "gray ordinariness of our lives" twice, which indicates that he was emphasizing how we find the suffering and death of Jesus in the mundane; we do not have to seek it, as it is right in front of us. (71)
I appreciate Rahner's characteristic low Christology wherein he described the humanness of Jesus sitting at table, relating as a man in community and partaking of earth-grown food: "He sits with them at the meal, because as human we are most intimately together with our many loved ones when our community of loyalty and love is also embodied in the common sharing in the bread and the drink taken from the one earth, from which everyone lives." (72) Rahner balanced the mystery of the eternal Christ of faith with the low Christology of Jesus, the man who ministered in ordinary time and space. He made effective use of the image of Jesus drinking from the "bottomless chalice of his life." (73) This image would be developed years later so beautifully in Henri Nouwen's book, Can You Drink the Cup? (74)
For his text, Rahner borrowed from his Meditations on the Sacraments, written in 1974, in which he described how Jesus took into himself all that was death: "[T]he obtuseness of the hearts of His disciples, their unbelief, the pain, the betrayal, the expulsion from His people, the brutal stupidity of the political policy which [kills] Him, the failure of His mission and His lifework." (75) The chapter on "The Eucharist: The Mystery of Our Christ" (tr. Salvator Attanasio) from which he quotes provides a very full, albeit compressed, discussion of Rahner's eucharistic theology. Compare that passage with this one from the homily of 1976, wherein he includes listeners along with the disciples: "[T]he obtuseness of the hearts of the disciples, of our hearts; the unbelief still at work in us; the pain, the betrayal; being rejected by his people, the brutal stupidity of the politics that kills him; the collapse of his mission and his active life." (76)
Although this homily is theologically dense, it is very profound and especially relevant today as we reflect on the nature of our present eucharistic communities. There is much theology to unpack and ponder, particularly that which reveals how becoming integrated into Jesus' death and resurrection should influence our lives. This homily addresses the ecclesial dimensions of eucharist as it links the last supper of Jesus and the disciples with us, we who represent believers from many traditions, every time we celebrate.
The members of Rahner's congregation that Holy Thursday, probably connected to the university at Innsbruck, were gifted with liturgical preaching that was at the same time theological and spiritual. It was an excellent example of preaching in the context of liturgical renewal eleven years after the close of Vatican II. It is interesting how Rahner updated the language bur still incorporated the essential theology. For example, although he avoided using the word "sacrifice" to describe Jesus' willing surrender to his death on the cross, sacrifice is implicit in the discussion of Jesus' acceptance of his death, which leads to our redemption. Rahner spoke of Jesus' death as originating with the beginning of time: "All this had its apex and its victory in the cross of Jesus, and it keeps on going until the final human life has been suffered to the end." (77)
When Jesus accepts this death, he ritualizes it as sacrifice, and so we have the words of institution. Jesus accepts death for the salvation of the people of the world: "It is our salvation; it is the judgment which forgives us, the revelation that we--although cruelly ensnared in our guilt and hopeless desolation--are the accepted and loved ones." (78) "Jesus 'consecrates' himself in this ritual of dying, but the disciples don't realize that they also are part of Jesus' death and 'into those sinister private recesses of human existence where guilt and death, judgment and eternal responsibility, eternal perdition and eternal redemption reside.'" (79)
The language of bloodless sacrifice is replaced by a language of relationship in post-Vatican II theology. Rahner connects Jesus' death and resurrection with us, and his Spirit with our participation in this sacramental act implemented by him, so that we will become like him. He describes this eucharist as "[t]he absolute mystery of the unfathomable." (80)
Recalling history and the events of his own lifetime, Rahner says with authority, "World history is at once the story of the guilt-ridden estrangement from God and the story of the passion that in Jesus' cross brings about the historical comprehensibility of the world's redemption." (81) These estrangement and redemption themes embody the social condition in the Passion that are remembered in Eucharist.
The church celebrates the "anamnesis," which is the "remembrance" of the last supper and the beginning of the new covenant. The original celebration took place in time and is absorbed into eternal time, not "an incident from the scattered past, but proclaiming the once and for all presence with eternal validity." (82) Our lives are indeed redeemed and "grounded upon this one event." (83) Christ is present in our celebration:
He is present as the gift which enters into us as the pledge of eternal life. He is present as the unity of love among us. He is present with His death and the life which He won from death. He is present as the beginning of the transfiguration of the world and as the pledge of the irrestible irruption of the glory of God in the darkness of sin. He is there as the power of life and as the power which sweeps us up into His death in order to bless our death with His life. He is there as the friend and fellow-traveler, as the brotherly sharer of our destiny. And in all this in which He is present among us and for us, He establishes Himself in us, He takes us into Himself while we receive Him. The eternal validity of His life and death and the promise of our future become sacramentally one in our presence. One thing only is demanded of us: the "amen" of our living faith for the deed the Lord has accomplished for US. (84)
A Comparison of the Selected Preached Texts of Niemoller and Rahner
Lutheran-Catholic dialogue statements from 1967 regarding the eucharist provided me with fourteen points for theological comparison of the two sermons. (85) I also compared style and language, hermeneutical method, use of Scripture, and the nature of the congregations and their setting, and I looked for areas of theological disagreement.
Starting with the premise that the two preachers would have much in common, partly because of their personal and professional experiences, I expected to find their theology similar in the two sermons. It was interesting how each preacher incorporated particular theological points held in common by the two traditions and chose to ignore others. For example, Rahner discussed the memory of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as it represents the fullness of the paschal mystery celebrated in the last supper, while Niemoller focused only on Jesus' death. Rahner incorporated a discussion of the Holy Spirit as present when we celebrate eucharist and as active in our everyday lives, but we find no pneumatology in Niemoller's preaching for this particular Maundy Thursday.
Niemoller preached out of a need to serve his fellow prisoners who represented four different denominations, each with a slightly different concept about the eucharist. While his assembly, he noted, would have to be fully catechized to appreciate the nuances, Niemoller really wanted the differences to melt away in the mystery of the celebration. If he had even broached the subject of doctrinal differences between his Greek Orthodox and Calvinist participants, for example, he would have placed obstacles in the way of their opportunity to be united with each other in the sacramental experience. His preaching was very focused on conjoining the first eucharist with the one they were celebrating in the cell in 1945. Throughout his sermon he emphasized the cross of Jesus so much that it seems natural to hear him refer to the cross as a "home for the homeless." (86)
Rahner, on the other hand, preached to a sophisticated Catholic congregation, most likely at or near the university. While be began by asking objective questions about the last supper and its connection to celebrating eucharist in 1976, Rahner went much further, producing a catechetical homily that helped his congregation continue to explore a deeper understanding of what it meant to be a eucharistic community. Like Niemoller, he also wanted the community to understand its ties to the original eucharistic meal.
Niemoller's language is simple and logical. He retold the story of the last supper, using a biblical narrative and exegesis based on the power of the cross. The cross itself provides a message of hope, comfort and unity; its subtext remains unspoken, that is, that the cross leads to eternal life. In contrast, Rahner's language is mystical and spiritual, with much application to living the eucharist in the ordinariness of daily life. While the scripture story is implicit, Rahner did not quote from the Bible. However, he referred to the passion and its relationship to the eucharist: "We celebrate now the passion of the Lord in sacramental sign, that it may be lived in the deed and truth of our lives." (87)
Rahner and Niemoller drew from a similar vocabulary to describe the death of Jesus. First Niemoller: "This interpretation which Jesus himself gives of his death is, as we noted, plain; but in its wonderfulness incomprehensible and in its depth unfathomable." (88) Next Rahner: "Because the incomprehensibility of the one whom be calls his Father even in his hour of death so ordains it," and "[t]he absolute mystery of the unfathomable." (89)
While Niemoller proclaimed his thesis that Good Friday makes Maundy Thursday and the last supper relevant to the entire enduring Christian message, Rahner expressed this more expansively: "[T]he cross and resurrection of Jesus are equally constitutive for this our eucharistic meal as its link back to Jesus' last meal with his disciples prior to his death." (90) Death and resurrection become real sacramentally as we "open ourselves to this one saving event." (91)
Both preachers identified Jesus as sacrificing himself, a one-time event in history, a gift to the faithful. Niemoller preached: "We know only one comfort and one assurance, Jesus Christ the crucified," (92) telling his congregation that the eucharistic community participates in the self-sacrifice of Jesus. "[H]is death is a gift that should be of advantage to them." (93) While Rahner referred to "this one saving event," (94) and the "apex and ... victory in the cross of Jesus," (95) Niemoller gave this dimension more emphasis: "And what he himself said at the time about the significance of his death became for his apostles and then for his church the actual core of the Christian faith and of the Christian message; and it has remained so until this day." (96)
Both Niemoller and Rahner preached on the mutually held tenet of Lutherans and Catholics, that Christ's sacrifice for us results in forgiveness and redemption. Niemoller emphasized that Jesus' death was "for you and for many for the remission of sins." (97) Jesus takes this death on himself for the forgiveness of sins which leads to new life in the new covenant. Rahner echoed that forgiveness and redemption occur when "Christ takes the bottomless chalice of his life," which results in our salvation and the redemption of the world. (98)
Defining the presence of Christ in the eucharist has occupied many theologians and has caused so much disunity that Niemoller clearly wanted to avoid this in his sermon. Both Rahner and Niemoller saw a need for a eucharistic theology that is fuller and more understandable than the Thomistic concept of "transubstantiation." Niemoller sought simplicity and an open heart. Rahner plumbed the depths of the eucharist and found additional meaning that would engage us more in the mystery. Neither preacher, it seems, wanted to see the eucharist held hostage to a narrow or incomplete theology.
Both men preached that Jesus Christ is present in the eucharist in his body and blood, under the signs of bread and wine. Neither preacher sought to dissect this mystery. The doctrine is implicit in the scriptural citations and exegesis done by Niemoller. Rahner said: "Certainly Jesus is present among us in this eucharistic celebration in a completely unique way, and is giving himself to us for our own." (99)
Both preachers referred to the presence of Christ, not only in the bread and wine, but also in the eucharistic community. Rahner expanded on this manifold presence in keeping with the theological developments resulting from Vatican II. (100)
Rahner and Niemoller both connected the human subject with the eucharist, Niemoller sounding like Rahner when he said, "For in its need for God and in its longing for Him the human heart remains ever the same." (101) Rahner offered the listener a human Christ, one who suffers all the psychological, spiritual, and physical pain possible, one who identifies with humankind in the common actions of daily life, the most important connection being the sharing at table.
Finally, both men had a keen sense of what it means to be a church community, to celebrate the eucharist as the church's own sacrifice of praise, offering the gifts of both the bread and wine and one another. Niemoller was eloquent on this point. (102) Rahner, too, developed the relationship in his homily between the eucharistic community and the church: "In this meal the church actualizes its own nature as the community of those who believe in God's mighty and irreversible coming.... In [God] there becomes visible sacramentally the community of those who acknowledge and seal our promise to let ourselves fall together with Jesus into this unspeakable mystery." (103)
In conclusion, I am grateful for the insights both preachers brought to their preaching on Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday, the holy night of the commemoration of the institution of the last supper. I imagine that I would have grasped Niemoller's message at first hearing, while I would have wanted to ask Rahner for a copy of his for further study and meditation. I come away with a keen awareness of the intensity of the time in which Niemoller preached, as well as how important the church was for him. I can imagine the tiny cell, doubling as chapel, with the worn-out prisoners from different traditions engaging in the most meaningful eucharistic celebrations of their lives. While I have, however, only a vague perception of Rahner's congregation, the importance of his preaching for Holy Thursday was not the particular community context, but the energized post-Vatican II theology of eucharist that brought so much new life into Catholic liturgy and discussion.
I have no doubt that if these two wonderful pastors and preachers were alive today, they would support ongoing dialogues toward eventually gathering all Christians at the eucharistic table. Informed by their experiences during and after Word War II and by the 1960's, these men of great stature were accomplishing important ecumenical work in different contexts, with Niemoller bringing many denominations together for ecumenical dialogue and joint ministry at the World Council of Churches and Rahner providing theological understanding for the participants in Vatican II, which opened the Catholic Church to forming positive, dialogical relationships with other Christian communions.
What conclusions can we draw from the inclusive eucharistic theology of Rahner and Niemoller in their preaching for Holy Thursday/Maundy Thursday as we reflect on hospitality at the Communion Table in the third millennium? First, we respect the right of particular church bodies to restrict communion to their members for doctrinal reasons. Second, we also observe the practice of hospitality and inclusiveness by certain local pastors and church members from traditions that officially adhere to a practice of closed communion but who, as individuals, believe that members of the Body of Christ are all welcome to participate in the last supper. Even within traditions that deny eucharist to nonmembers because of doctrinal differences, such as the Catholic Church, holy communion is offered to nonmembers in nursing homes or to those who have no access to a minister from their tradition, as well as in other special situations. Though not usually in such dire circumstances as the people in cell 34, these people, who would not be included otherwise, represent a ray of acceptance of diversity within the universal church.
Third, and of particular interest to me as one ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which began as a movement for Christian unity on the American frontier, is the proliferation of ecumenical communities that embody multiple religious and spiritual traditions, while incorporating a mission in justice and peace-making as part of their core values. Among the most well-known are the Iona Community, which originated within the Church of Scotland, and the Taize Community in France, which admits Protestant and Catholic men and serves a diverse group of religious tourists. Both communities welcome participants from all Christian traditions to the table.
Konrad Raiser, former General Secretary of the World Council of Churches, perceived the need for "making visible the unity already given in the triune God, particularly by sharing in the Eucharist." (104) Among others restating this concept in recent scholarship is Thomas Rausch, who has written, "What is perhaps more of a problem [than theological language] is helping both Catholics and Protestants in the pews come to a better appreciation of how similar their understandings of the Eucharist are, rather than continuing to emphasize the distance between their respective positions." (105) As part of the ongoing ecumenical task, this is today's challenge for ecumenists and all who seek to welcome one another within the e