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Between the cross and the resurrection is a love as “fierce as death” (Song of Songs 8:6). This love has been revealed as wounded hands that heal the wounds of the other, as bleeding feet that make mountains even more beautiful, as pierced head and side that subvert the alleged meaning of royalty. For in this kingdom, to serve is to reign, to die is to live, to lose is to win, to love is to forgive. Between the cross and the resurrection is God and man – the God-man in whom unconditional love has a face and a name, and we call him Jesus, a name that means YHWH-saves.

 Saint Edith Stein (1891–1942), also known as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, is a contemporary figure who knew well this limitless love that unites the cross and the resurrection. Born on Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, Saint Edith savored the experience of sacrifice and self-denial from a young age. Her penchant for truth and charity eventually would lead her to become Catholic at the age of 30 and to enter the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne, Germany, at the age of 42, without ever abandoning her Jewish roots.

Her love for the cross and its route à corniche to resurrection was consummated in her deportation to the Auschwitz concentration camp and her death there, enclosed in a poisonous gas chamber on August 9, 1942. Hers was a double martyrdom, at once Jewish and Catholic, witnessing to the irrevocable gifts, call and covenant between YHWH and the Jewish people (see Rom 11:29), as well as to the new covenant inaugurated in the messianic blood of the God-man.

As a Carmelite nun, Saint Edith was keenly aware that “the battle between Christ and the Antichrist is not yet over.” She says that “the followers of Christ have their place in this battle, and their chief weapon is the cross.” What else does she mean by this, practically speaking? How do we take up our place in this cosmic battle through the weaponry of the cross? A theology of intercession and mediation is necessary to understand one’s immediate and indispensable role within Christ’s work of salvation in the world.

Saint Edith writes that “voluntary expiatory suffering is what truly and really unites one to the Lord intimately.” Saint Paul says as much in his letter to the church in Colossae, where he writes, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church” (1:24). Yet what does Saint Edith mean by “voluntary expiatory suffering”? From its Latin root, ex–piare (“to atone for, purify, appease”), expiation means to repay through sacrifice and penance the debt incurred by every personal sin.

Free and unmerited sacramental absolution is God’s alone to give, however, penance remains to be accomplished by the penitent, always inspired and sustained by grace. Penitential acts involve willful suffering that is experienced through the purifying process of detachment from all disordered appetites and affections for created goods, as well as those acts of self-denial that promote the purification and good of another person. Such penitential acts can be in the form of indulgences performed for oneself or for someone who has died. In addition, penitential and intercessory acts in general (not indulgences specifically) can be performed on behalf of another living person in order to ignite deeper conversion of soul in oneself and in the other.

Saint Edith writes, “Christ the head effects expiation in the members of his Mystical Body who put themselves, body and soul, at his disposal for carrying out his work of salvation.” This is an incredible privilege for us members of the Mystical Body of Christ – that he desires to continue his ongoing expiation for sinners through us sinners-being-redeemed, through our voluntary penitential practices and intercessory prayer. Saint Edith has more to say on this amazing vocation of Christ’s disciples, and the following two passages are worth quoting at length:

“Once you are joined to the Lord, you become as omnipresent as he is. Instead of offering assistance in one particular place, like the doctor, nurse, or priest, in the power of the Cross you have the ability to be everywhere at once, at every scene of misery. Your compassionate love, drawn from the Redeemer’s heart, can take you in all directions, allowing you to sprinkle on every side the Precious Blood that soothes, heals, and redeems.” 

“There is a vocation to suffer with Christ and thereby to cooperate with him in his work of salvation. When we are united with the Lord, we are members of the mystical body of Christ: Christ lives on in his members and continues to suffer in them. And the suffering borne in union with the Lord is his suffering, incorporated in the great work of salvation and fruitful therein. That is a fundamental premise of all religious life, above all of the life of Carmel, to stand proxy for sinners through voluntary joyous suffering and to cooperate in the salvation of humankind.”

What a wonder to become as omnipresent as Jesus through missionary contemplation and apostolic intercessory prayer. United secretly and openly with Christ the Bridegroom through the sacraments, we become “living stones built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet 2:5). By “standing proxy for sinners through voluntary joyous suffering,” we cooperate with Christ the Good Shepherd in the redemption of the lost sheep for whom he came to seek and to rescue.

Finally, Saint Edith answers her own rhetorical question, “Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer comfort, healing, and salvation.” The weapon of the cross is magnetized by every cross it encounters. Like attracts like, and cross attracts cross. In the Mystical Body of Christ, a supernatural unity obtains among all of the members to permeate the world with the saving work of Christ. Suffering in solidarity with people presently experiencing suffering next door and throughout the world circulates the medicine of mercy that the Great Physician comes to administer.

Saint Edith Stein was intimately acquainted with the ferocious power of the cross, and the integrity of her whole life testifies to the fact that love is stronger than hate and death. Love will have the last word because it always will remain the first word.