In 1967, Father Joseph Ratzinger was a theologian teaching at the University of Tübingen in Germany. To assist in the celebration of Holy Week, the Bavarian Radio asked him to compose some meditations on these days leading up to Easter. This is the origin of his “Meditations on Holy Week,” from which these selections are taken.
Thirty years later as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he penned a brief reflection on these “Meditations on Holy Week” in which he looked back and offered his thoughts on their continued relevance. Excerpts from this later reflection are presented as an introduction to his earlier meditations.
Now that Joseph Ratzinger has become Pope Benedict XVI, these meditations take on a new importance in offering insight into the mind and thought of the leader of the Catholic Church. However, it would be a mistake to treat this work as a mere historical document. Today, over forty years after their original publication, these reflections written by a humble priest who would one day be pope, continue to offer an opportunity for deep and profound contemplation of the mystery of Holy Week.
A good thirty years have passed since I wrote my “Meditations on Holy Week.” They were prompted by the invitation of the Bavarian Radio, which wanted to make a contribution to the proper celebration of these sacred days by means of these texts, which were to conclude in prayer. At this time I was busy with the preparation of my lecture course Introduction to Christianity, which I gave for all disciplines in the summer semester of 1967 at Tübingen and published a year later in book form. It was clear to me that Christology had to form the heart of these lectures and that the theology of the Paschal Mystery should in turn occupy a central place in them. Thus these considerations were at the same time avenues of approach for the coming lectures. To be sure, the lectures needed to surpass the boundaries of academic theology: the point was to understand the Christian proclamation today and, from my own understanding, to open a door of understanding to others, even to those standing at a distance. In such a way the whole undertaking had a very personal character for me. I pondered my own Christian existence, its foundation and its direction.
No Christian—nor, one would think, any person struggling to find the right path—can be left cold by Good Friday. Is it not strange that an apparently ruined man, who departs in extreme pain and forsakenness, is portrayed as the redeemer of all men? What do pain and redemption, suffering and happiness, have to do with each other? Very early I came to see the connection between love and pain as the central question of the cross. Related to this question was another, namely, how the existence of another man, his suffering and victory, could become decisive for my life and conversion. But here we are speaking foremost of the meditations on Holy Saturday. Since I was born on a Holy Saturday, this day has had a special meaning for me from the beginning. In my early years it was important to me mainly that this was my baptismal day and that I was, as my parents emphasized with particular pride, the first to be baptized in the newly blessed Easter water. Being born on Holy Saturday brought home to me the privilege of a Baptism that was quite noticeably joined to the Christian pasch, that is, that let Baptism’s inner origin and foundation for life appear particularly clearly. The tidings of my birthday were thus joined in a special way to the liturgy of the Church; my life from its beginning seemed oriented to this strange coincidence of light and darkness, of pain and hope, of the hiddenness and presence of God.
I do not want to continue to develop these considerations here. I only wanted to show which questions moved me when I wrote down my consideration of Holy Saturday. Perhaps I should add that all of this gained a new urgency in 1967 due to the great crisis of Christian consciousness that was already looming and then, with the events of 1968, could also be seen and heard. The churches whose windows were covered with dark curtains became a symbol of the situation of our world. It has windows, yes, but these windows are covered; the light from outside and above does not penetrate; God conceals himself. Nonetheless – as much as Martin Buber’s expression of “God’s darkness” may capture the times, I did not write my texts just to pursue a critique of the times and to lament from within the darkness. I knew that the curtains fall away. I knew that behind the curtains the light was waiting. I knew that the silence of Holy Saturday is filled with the mystery of hope. Precisely as a participant in the perils of our generation I felt called to give voice to the hope that, in truth, always lies especially near in the hour of silence and darkness.