MARY, The Church at the Source
“MY WORD SHALL NOT RETURN TO ME EMPTY!”
Sermon by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)
German Bishops’ Conference in Stapelfeld, Germany on March 6, 1979
Reading: Isaiah 55:10-11
Gospel: Matthew 6:7-15
Dear brothers in the episcopate,
Dear brothers and sisters in the Lord!
Pages 13-14: “My word shall not return to me
empty!” When the prophet Isaiah spoke these words, he was hardly
stating the obvious. Rather, he was contradicting what were most likely
the expectations of his listeners. The verses of the reading belong in
the context of Israel’s history of sorrows, in which God repeatedly
calls his people in vain, in which his word remains fruitless, in which
God appears on the stage of history – but not as a victor. All the
signs he has performed – the miracle at the Red Sea, the inauguration
of the royal period, Israel’s return from exile – come to nothing.
God’s seed in the world seems ineffectual. The word God speaks in
today’s text thus comes in the midst of a cloud of darkness as an
encouragement to all who still believe in God’s power; who believe that
the world is more than rocky ground in which the seed finds no room to
take root; who believe that the world is still something more than
shallow soil where the sparrows of banality immediately peck away any
seed that falls into it (cf. Mk 4:1-9).
Note: In context, God’s word will never fail as all prophecies will be fulfilled.
“For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and
earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the
law till all is fulfilled.” Matthew 5:18.
Page 14: For us Christians, these words are a
promise of Jesus Christ, in whom the Word of God really penetrated the
earth and became bread for us all. He is the seed that bears fruit
through the centuries, the fruitful answer in which God’s speech has
taken living root in this word. The mystery of Christ is almost nowhere
so palpable and intimately connected with the mystery of Mary as in the
perspective of this promise. When the text says that the word, or the
seed, bears fruit, it means that, unlike a ball that hits the ground
and bounces back up, the seed actually sinks into the earth,
assimilates the earth’s energies, and changes them into itself. It thus
brings about something truly new, for now it carries the earth in
itself and turns the earth into fruit.
Note: In context, as natural rain brings forth food, so shall supernatural prophecies be fulfilled.
“For as the rain comes down, and the snow
from heaven, and do not return there, but water the earth, and make it
bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower and bread to
the eater, so shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth; It shall
not return to Me void, but it shall accomplish what I please, and it
shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it.” Isaiah 55:10-11.
Page 14: The grain of wheat does not remain
alone, for it includes the maternal mystery of the soil – Mary, the
holy soil of the Church, as the Fathers so wonderfully call her, is an
essential part of Christ. The mystery of Mary means precisely that
God’s Word did not remain alone; rather, it assimilated the other – the
soil – into itself, became man in the “soil” of his Mother, and then
fused with the soil of the whole of humanity, returned to God in a new
Note: Mary had no part in the establishment of the Church.
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and
foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the
household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles
and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom
the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in
the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling
place of God in the Spirit. Ephesians 2:19-22.
Page 14: The Gospel, by contrast, seems to be
talking about an entirely different subject. The text speaks of how we
should pray, of the right form and content of prayer, of the right way
of acting, and of the right kind of interiority in prayer. It speaks,
in other words, not of what God does, but of what we men do in relation
Note: Christians are to pray to God not to Mary.
“And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions
as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their
many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the
things you have need of before you ask Him. 9In this manner, therefore,
pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come.
Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our
daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And
do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For
Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. For if
you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also
forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither
will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:7-15.
Pages 14-15: The truth of the matter is that
there is an intimate connection between the two readings. One could
even say that the Gospel explains how men can become fruitful soil for
God’s Word. They can become this soil by providing, as it were, the
organic elements in which life can grow and mature; by drawing life
themselves from this organic matter; by becoming themselves a word
formed by the penetration of the Word; by sinking the roots of their
life into prayer and thus into God.
Note: Do you meditate on the Word of God regularly?
How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking
heed according to Your word. With my whole heart I have sought You; Oh,
let me not wander from Your commandments! Your word I have hidden in my
heart, that I might not sin against You. Blessed are You, O Lord! Teach
me Your statutes. With my lips I have declared all the judgments of
Your mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as
in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your
ways. I will delight myself in Your statutes; I will not forget Your
word. Psalm 119:9-16.
Page 15: Our Gospel reading thus has a point of
contact with the initiation into the mystery of Mary that Saint Luke
gives us when he says in several passages that Mary “kept” the words in
her heart (2:19; 2:51; cf. 1:29).
Note: Do you meditate on the Word of God regularly?
And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose
name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the
Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had
been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death
before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the
temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him
according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and
blessed God and said: “Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in
peace, according to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation
which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to
bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.”
And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of
Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold,
this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and
for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce
through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be
Page 15: Mary was, so to say, the confluence of
the streams of Israel; in prayer she bore the mystery and grandeur of
its history and so enabled it to become fertile soil for the living
God. Of course, prayer, as the Gospel tells us, involves considerably
more than prattling, than mere talk. To be soil for the Word means that
the soil must allow itself to be absorbed by the seed, to be
assimilated by the seed, to surrender itself for the sake of
transforming the seed into life. Mary’s maternity means that she
willingly places her own substance, body and soul, into the seed so
that new life can grow. When Luke says that a sword shall pierce her
soul (Lk 2:35), he means much more profound and much greater: Mary
makes herself entirely available as soil; she lets herself be used
(brauchen) and used up, in order to be transformed into the One who
needs (braucht) us in order to become the fruit of the earth.
Note: The prophecy of Luke 2:35 was fulfilled when Jesus Christ dying for the sins of the world.
Now there stood by the cross of Jesus His
mother, and His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary
Magdalene. When Jesus therefore saw His mother, and the disciple whom
He loved standing by, He said to His mother, “Woman, behold your son!”
Then He said to the disciple, “Behold your mother!” And from that hour
that disciple took her to his own home. John 19:25-27.
Pages 15-16: Today’s Liturgy of the Hours says
that we must become a longing for God. The Fathers of the Church say
that prayer, properly understood, is nothing other than becoming a
longing for God. In Mary this petition has been granted: she is, as it
were, the open vessel of longing, in which life becomes prayer and
prayer becomes life. Saint John wonderfully conveys this process by
never mentioning Mary’s name in his Gospel. She no longer has any name
except “the Mother of Jesus”. It is as if she had handed over her
personal dimension, in order now to be solely at his disposal, and
precisely thereby had become a person.
Note: Are you focused on Jesus Christ or on Mary?
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who
abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do
nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and
is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and
they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you
will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My
Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My
disciples.” John 15:5-8.
Page 16: In my opinion, the connection between
the mystery of Christ and the mystery of Mary suggested to us by
today’s readings is very important in our age of activism, in which the
Western mentality has evolved to the extreme. For in today’s
intellectual climate, only the masculine principle counts. And that
means doing, achieving results, actively planning and producing the
world oneself, refusing to wait for anything upon which one would
thereby become dependent, relying rather, solely on one’s own
abilities. It is, I believe, no coincidence, given our Western,
masculine mentality, that we have increasingly separated Christ from
his Mother, without grasping that Mary’s motherhood might have some
significance for theology and faith. This attitude characterizes our
whole approach to the Church. We treat the Church almost like some
technological device that we plan and make with enormous cleverness and
expenditure of energy. Then we are surprised when we experience the
truth of what Saint Louis-Marie Grignon de Montfort once remarked,
paraphrasing the words of the prophet Haggai, when he said, “You do
much, but nothing comes of it” (Hag 1:6)! When making becomes
autonomous, the things we cannot make but are alive and need time to
mature can no longer survive.
Note: The Church is a dynamic gathering of Christians from all ages in Jesus Christ.
Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in
the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, do not cease to give
thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers: that the God of
our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit
of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, the eyes of your
understanding being enlightened; that you may know what is the hope of
His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the
saints, and what is the exceeding greatness of His power toward us who
believe, according to the working of His mighty power which He worked
in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right
hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and
might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age
but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His
feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is
His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. Ephesians 1:15-23.
Pages 16-17: What we need, then, is to abandon
this one-sided, Western activistic outlook, lest we degrade the Church
to a product of our creation and design. The Church is not a
manufactured item; she is, rather, the living seed of God that must be
allowed to grow and ripen. This is why the Church needs the Marian
mystery; this is why the Church herself is a Marian mystery. There can
be fruitfulness in the Church only when she has this character, when
she becomes holy soil for the Word. We must retrieve the symbol of the
fruitful soil; we must once more become waiting, inwardly recollected
people who in the depth of prayer, longing, and faith give the Word
room to grow.
Note: The mystery of the Church is the love of Jesus Christ that is to be shown toward one another.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also
loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and
cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might
present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or
any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So
husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who
loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but
nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we
are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. “For this
reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his
wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, but
I speak concerning Christ and the church. Ephesians 5:25-32.
Pages 17-18: At this Holy Mass, we commemorate
Cardinal Josef Frings, long-time President of the German Bishops’
Conference, who departed this life last Advent. He died in the Advent
season, which since ancient times has been the church’s true Marian
season. It seems to me that this circumstance expresses the course and
direction of his life. Cardinal Frings entrusted the Church of God in
Germany to Mary’s maternal care. He consecrated her to Mary. In the
midst of a rising tide of activism, he wanted to place the Church under
the law of humble fruit-bearing for the Word. At the Council, when the
liturgical, Christological, and ecumenical movements opposed the Marian
movement, and the two parties threatened to become irreconcilable
alternatives, he addressed an imploring appeal to the Fathers to find
the common center. He emphatically rejected a shortsighted, hasty
either-or, as if the Church now had to decide whether to become modern,
biblical, liturgical, and ecumenical or to remain “old-fashioned” and
Marian. It was his personal concern to join the two streams together,
to give the liturgy the heartfelt intensity of Marian piety and to open
to Marian piety the breadth of the liturgical tradition. This was one
of the most personal appeals that he addressed – moved by the passion
of faith – to the Council Fathers. This appeal stands before us –
especially at this hour – as a guidepost, pointing the way to a renewed
acknowledgment and acceptance of the mystery of the earth, so that the
Word may thus bear fruit in us. Amen.
Note: Jesus Christ should always have the preeminence in all things within the Christian Church.
He is the image of the invisible God, the
firstborn over all creation. For by Him all things were created that
are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether
thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were
created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in
Him all things consist. And He is the head of the body, the church, who
is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He
may have the preeminence. Colossians 1:15-18.
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