In an almost 2,000-word long homily during his installation Mass as archbishop of Berlin, Archbishop Heiner Koch took the figure of Jacob as a starting point to delve into what the love of and for God is. Love is not an emotion, he explained, but a decision, and it is based on trust. And that is the key to experiencing God, as even Jacob, on the run and forced to sleep under the naked sky with a stone for a pillow, discovered.
In my experience, the Old Testament patriarchs, with the possible exception of Moses, rarely feature in homilies. That alone makes this one worth a read. Besides that, it may also help some in thinking about their own relation with God.
“Jacob, the supplanter, that is what they called him (cf. Gen. 27:36), and from him we hear in today’s reading. With a lie he had taken the rights of the first born from his brother Esau, and so provoked his vengeance. He had to flee and already on the first night of his flight he had to spend the night under the open sky. Night surrounded him: the night of those who have no home, of those who are guilty, of those who disappointed and alienated others. In that night he took a stone, but not only to rest his head on. He and his contemporaries attributed a special power to stones, a divine connection: That is why they expected security and shelter from such a stone. In the middle of his night, Jacob trusts on the nearness of God through the power of the stone under his head: “I, Yahweh, am the God of Abraham your father, and the God of Isaac. I am with you. I shall keep you safe wherever you go, and bring you back to this country, for I shall never desert you” (cf. Gen. 28:13-15). In the middle of the night of his life, a dream reveals to him the closeness of God: In the middle of his homelessness he finds himself at home with God: “This is the abode of God, here God gives him, the refugee, home and security (cf. Gen. 28:17). A second dream breaks the hopelessness of his life: A ladder, on which the angels of God ascend and descend, connecting heaven and earth (cf. Gen. 28:12). Heaven is open for him, despite all his guilt and with all his desperation, powerlessness and homelessness.For him, night becomes a time of awakening is, from all seclusion and darkness.
In the middle of the night Jacob experiences what Christ proclaimed and lived: I, God, love you, man, so much, beyond all boundaries and conditions, I will not leave you. I am and will remain with you. I will be at your side:
If the powerful consider you nothing but a number, I was also a number to the powerful at the time of my birth. I am with you, refugee, as I also had to flee when I was a child. I am with you when people laugh at you, as they laughed at me. I am with you when the strike and make you bleed, as they made me bleed. I am with you, when people think your life is worthless as they did mine. I am with you when there is no room for you in the city, as there was no room for me. Neither do I come down from the Cross and leave the thief there to die. My love is without limits, my love will not leave you, man, alone: not you, Jacob, the supplanter, not the thief on the Cross and not the people and not you today.
That is the heart of the good new that we Christian far and wide vouch for: Christ the Saviour is here! You can rely on Him. He is the fundamental reason for our joy: “Gaudete semper! Dominus prope. Always be joyful! The Lord is near” (Phil. 4:4,5). I took these words from Saint Paul as the motto of my episcopal service. God doesn’t come sometimes, He is here: here and now, in Kreuzberg, Charlottenburg and Köpenick, in Potsdam and Greifswald, Brandenburg an der Havel or Frankfurt an der Oder, always and forever, in peace and suffering, in joy and need, when I am aware of His closeness and when He seems far from me, in life and in death: He is and remains near to us. Setting no limits to human life! That is what we Christians must stand for, also when we are not supported from all sides.
This message changes everything: what perspective on life it opens, far beyond the limits of the tangible world and beyond death. Christians are people of a wide horizon, who will not be bound by circumstances of the here and now. What hope and confidence, especially in the dark times of life, may break forth from this experience of God’s closeness!
Such commitment is there, but also challenge: Leave no one ever alone: neither the unborn child, nor the homeless, the failed, the sick, the disabled, the powerless nor the dying! Set no limits for human life!
Everything, in Berlin, in Brandenburg, in Vorpommern, now depends on learning to see HIM, to discover HIM, to find HIM especially in the darkness of our lives. That is why we are here as Church: to help people discover God in their lives, sometimes in a long struggle, a long process of searching – that is what we are here for as Christians and as Church.
But: is there really such a God? Can I experience Him as a reality or does He prove to be just an empty phrase or ideological superstructure? In answering this question all people, without exception, are believers. Man does not have the choice to be a believer or not. In the decisive questions of life, and especially in the crucial question of God, man encounters his quintessential decision of faith: one believes that there is nothing beyond the visible and understandable world, and the other believes that there is a God beyond our thinking and seeing. One believes that it all ends with death, and the other that death is the portal to eternal life. One believes that God exists and the other that He does not. Everyone lives in faith. In the de facto pursuit of life man can not be indecisive about the question of God: Either he prays to God or he doesn’t. He either struiggles with God or not, either God means something in his life, or He does not. His concrete, practical life provides the answer to the question of his faith: “Do you believe that there is a God, or do you believe that there is no God?”
With that also comes the questions: “Can I perceive, see, recognise God today? Can I experience and learn to see Him like Jacob did?”
The story of Jacob provides the answer: You will see Him when you build on Him, when you trust on Him. Trust broadens the outlook, mistrust on the other hand blinds. That is just as true in politics as in personal life. When two people meet, recognise each other, as Scripture has it, they must trust one another. Precisely that is the leap of faith, it is the leap of my trust. Without such trust there can be no experiencing God. You must dare to live in trust with God, and you will experience that God exists. That is the key to God: your trust.
The theory of science describes this when she says that the object to be studied always defines the method of investigation. A scientific object must be studied with scientific methods and a historical event with historical methods. Carrying this thought over to the knowledge of God: If God is love, He can only be known through love. We see God at the cost of our hearts, our trust. There is no easier way! There can be no knowledge of God outside of my trust.
And then, love is much more than just a feeling, but rather a decision. Especially in difficult times this becomes profoundly clear in terms of God’s love: When I no longer hear antyhing from God, when I can no longer understand Him, no longer grasp Him in my own terms,, when I feel that God is greater than my thoughts and feelings, when I no longer see His path in my hour of need, then precisely these hours become a question to me: Can God rely on my love, even when I don’t see Him? Is the decision of my love for Him so strong that it proves itself in such hours? Do I trust in God even then, and can He rely on me under such a burden? I am always touched when I consider that Christ asked Peter, before he entrust him with his great office, three times, “Do you love me?”(cf. John 21: 15-23). He does not ask, “Do you believe this and do that?” but enquires three times about his love. “Do you love me?” This questions becomes also for us the decisive question about our knowledge of God: “Do you love me?” I am convinced that most people do not know God, as they are unwilling to trust God, to give Him their hearts, their love. But precisely this path is the only path to experience that I am not alone in the days and nights of my life and that my night is therefore thrown open to Easter morning. Give God a chance! Give Him your trust!
And what if we can answer Christ’s question to us, about our love, just as hesitantly as Peter or perhaps even poorer and more pathetic? Let’s look once again at Jakob, the supplanter, with this question. His path with God is not ended, he must continue on, considerably further. Love is never done, love is always searching. I also ask you, the unbaptised, and you, who have another religion, to go with us on this search. We are grateful for your life experiences. You are a great wealth for us with your searching and your meaningful questions about life and faith. We are probably much closer to each other than we think, and perhaps we will discover on our common path not only we are searching for God, but God has already been searching for us, not only that we are looking for God, but that He is looking for us. Perhaps we can help each other in this way to discover this God, who in Paradise already asked man, “Where are you?” (Gen. 3:9).
How good it is to recall at such times that our love for God is not the decisive factor, but God’s love for us, that His love stands firm and is reliable, that He serves us and washes our feet and not we His. Perhaps a small and quick prayer can then also help, such as, “Dear God, do not let me go!”
My dear sisters and brothers! Learning to love God together and through and in Him our sisters and brothers and all people whom God entrusts to us: to proclaim this – as the Gospel tells us today – to be seeds in the hearts of men. That is the great project of our diocese in all its effects on our parishes, communities and institutions! It is the fullness of life and the love of God, from which we all live and which carries us, also with our fractures, which we can often no longer heal. Should we not address these concerns in our time in completely new ways, with new emphases, consequences and focus? The future of the Church is not a carbon copy!
Is this not also the ecumenical path, which I would join and build up consciously and decidedly? Learning to love God, how important is this mutual way for us and our society!
Does this path of love not lead directly to the weak, the poor and disadvantaged of our society, in whom God challenges us and our love? The current need of refugees and their families is for us not just a burning and challenging social question, it becomes question of our faith. Without people in need, awaiting our love, we can not find God, who is love, and we remain blind for his closeness. He is close to us in them!
Dear sisters and brothers, from my heart I want to go this path of learning to love with you. Please come with me on our common path!
+ Archbishop Dr. Heiner Koch”
Photo credit: KNA