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An Altar of Living Stones by Archbishop Dr. Heiner Koch

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

When starting to write this Lenten Letter my mind was loaded with all the worries of the corona pandemic: Concern for so many people dear to us, sorrow for so much suffering. How many had to die! How many fell gravely ill! How we felt burdened by the restrictions of contacts we had to observe! How much discussion and dispute concerning the importance of testing and vaccinations!

Then, day by day, I saw more ground for hope, rising numbers of vaccinations, sinking numbers of hospitalisations, the intensive care units able to cope.

Suddenly the invasion of Russian troops into the Ukraine destroyed these germs of hope: The hard times, the stony road through the desert, are not yet over. On the contrary.

In our thoughts and our prayers we are deeply united with the people of the Ukraine who may feel thrown into a deadly desert, an overwhelming experience. And we are equally united with those courageous men and women in Russia who dare to raise their voice against this kind of injustice. They are risking their freedom and their future. May God help them and all who work for peace.

Bread from Heaven, Water from the rock

The first reading of this first Sunday of Lent tells us how the Chosen People of Israel live their faith. They have to cross the desert, forty years in uninhabitable lands. We hear of cries to the LORD God, of unbearable labour, deprivation of rights, of subjection and suppression. And the LORD is moved to lead the people out of Egypt, into a land flowing with milk and honey. But much is to happen before the goal is reached. We are told of two miraculous events, which, as we will see, throw light not only on today's gospel, but also on the renewal of our Saint-Hedwig-Cathedral, its new lectern and altar that I would like to present to you in a few words.

While in the desert, the Israelites suffer hunger and thirst, lack of vital things, basic needs not cared for. Hence, in spite of their new cherished freedom, there grows the desire to return to the flesh pots of Egypt. They begin to grumble, a frequent reaction in days of hardship, just as we ourselves are easily prone to criticisms and accusations, undermining the unity of the society. Yet a society must firmly hold together, if it is to survive in these hard conditions of the desert. Then God sends bread from heaven. It rains manna to still their hunger. Soon after, God makes water rush out of a rock. Stones yield water to quench their thirst. So Israel's journey can continue, although the end of their pilgrimage still lies far ahead.

Stones to Bread?

Luke's narrative refers to and surpasses what is told of Israel's stay in the desert when it speaks of Jesus spending forty days in the desert at the beginning of his public mission. The devil wants Jesus to combine both miracles of the Exodus, not simply bread from heaven, but stones changed into bread. "If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become bread." (Lk 4:4)  Jesus at once perceives the insidious evil of this suggestion. As Son of the Father he will neither outdo the Father nor deviate from his Father's aims. God's intent is not focused on the satisfaction of basic needs; instead he wants us to have life to the full. The goal of the Israelites was never the desert, but all the time they looked forward to the land flowing with milk and honey. Accordingly, in all his preaching, all his activities, his passion and death, Jesus did not propose a new political system, another utopian society; he announced the Kingdom of God, coming and already among us.

An altar of stone

Speaking of stones, I would like to take this opportunity to say a word about the actual reshaping of our Cathedral St. Hedwig. The Cathedral is the central church building of the archdiocese of Berlin, and as the required repair work is proceeding well the final steps towards completion can now be envisaged. This is the plan: I invite you all to become actively involved in the following way. On the coming feast of Corpus Christi, Thursday the 16th of June, we want to collect stones, with the participation of all the faithful of the Archdiocese everywhere, from all parishes and communities, in Vorpommern, Sachsen-Anhalt, Brandenburg and Berlin. Stones from everywhere, of course not big lumps, small ones, not longer or broader than 4 centimetres, natural stones (neither glass nor ceramics). The new altar is to be erected with these stones. Thus the altar is to become a symbol how all the faithful are bound together in Christ standing in our midst. When at the beginning of the Eucharist the priest kisses the altar, or when it is honoured with incense, we are reminded that Christ is the centre and foundation of our faith.

By contributing a little stone, we declare that we bring ourselves to Christ, with all our deficiencies and limitations, our needs and hopes, our hunger and thirst for justice, our personal fates and histories, our journeys through the desert of life, in order that Christ may integrate us as living stones into the temple that he himself is, God's presence among us. The altar is the visible place of his love and surrender to the Father. The Law of Moses ordered that an altar should not be built of hewn stones, but of unhewn stones, of stones as they are. Likewise is the altar of our Cathedral to be built of ourselves as we are, that it may keep us together faithful to the Lord. The altar becomes a symbol of our community, it shows us bound to one another and to God. We form the altar upon which the wonder of the Eucharist takes place, the change of the bread and wine that we bring into the body and blood of Jesus Christ that we receive. Hence we offer the stones for the altar and the lectern in view of sharing in Christ's sacrifice and with the desire to listen to God's word and never to lack courage in passing the message of Jesus to the world around us. 

Dear Sisters and Brothers, let us make good use of this Lenten period to become more free of superfluous things and more aware of our drawbacks and shortcomings. We must always remain open for God who infinitely exceeds our feebleness and poverty. The People of God, of so many faces, is the Body of Christ, of so many members, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, built of so many living stones.

Today I invite you. Please, bring yourselves and your stones to St. Hedwig's on the Bebelplatz on 16th June. I am looking forward to our common celebration of Corpus Christi.

Your Archbishop

Dr. Heiner Koch

transl. Fr. Dr Dietmar Lenfers MAfr