MPZ - My first bible in pictures

Students from Tamale/Ghana visiting St. Anton-Regensburg 2016

During my visit to your home dioceses in Northern Ghana in the last years, I concelebrated the Holy Mass in a number of parishes and saw the churches in which some of you had become Christians and grown up. But now happens the reverse: You are here in my Bavarian home parish and we celebrate the Eucharist here, in this church. I am deeply moved by this, for it was in this church that I grew up. As far as I can think back, i.e. since I was about four years old – that was 56 years ago –, I have been going to this church. I have been acquainted with all the parish priests and chaplains working here till today. And it was here that I received the First Holy Communion and that, back in 1984, I led the Eucharist for the first time.

This church is no less my home than is the apartment I live in. But what is more, I have been in love with this house of the Lord right from the beginning – most notably because of its images. This church was my first Bible before I was able to read: just as mosaics, sculptures and frescoes used to be the only bible generally available in the Middle Ages, when most people in Europe were illiterate. Everything that is essential to a Christian’s faith is to be found in the images of this church. Here, on the right-hand side, on the larger one, we see the three major stations of Jesus’ life: his birth, Good Friday and his resurrection. It is highly interesting that the artist – his name was Georg Winkler – has in the same fashion added a drawing of the Cross to each of the three scenes: It is as though it already casts a cloud over the crib, and not even the brightness and victory of Easter disperse it. God allows himself to be touched by suffering and death – and neither is forgotten; rather, both are also made part of the eternal Easter Feast.    

It was the question of suffering and death and, behind it, that of evil which vexed the people at the time when this church was built and when its images were drawn: the years between 1924 and 1929, the short interlude between World War I and II, the two major catastrophes of Europe’s more recent past. Hence, the whole wall on the opposite side is characterized by one prevalent topic: God’s judgement, as it is depicted in the Revelation of John. Good is not indifferent against evil, the image points out with the judgement scenes here in the foreground – images of which I was sometimes almost afraid as a boy. At the same time, however, it shows us that many, many people may enter through the gate of heaven: Eternal life is not a few people’s privilege: So great a number that no-one can count them will actually arrive at their final destination. Faith allows us to cherish the hope that we, too, will be among them. And it is important to note that the dead are not forgotten either: For this reason, the painter has inserted drawings of the more recent victims of the history of his day: the fallen soldiers of World War I. That is what we term “inculturation” in contemporary theological debates: translating the tradition of faith into today’s modes of expression, thus connecting the past, the present and the future and making it a unity in God.

Here at the front, on the arc between the nave and the presbytery, the artist has once again taken up the topic of “Heavenly Jerusalem” from the judgement scene, presenting it to us as our aim and destination, as it were: This new Jerusalem in fact consists of saints: popes and bishops, members of orders and laymen, men and women. They all have followed Jesus, thus validating their lives before God. And so, standing before our very eyes like this, they are in a certain sense an invitation in flesh and blood, saying to us: Do join us, too!  

The two side walls of the presbytery point to that which means to give us a first inkling of the new Jerusalem: the celebration of the Eucharist as the source and centre of the community of the redeemed. To that end the artist has painted the only eucharistic prayer that there was at that time, today’s First Canon: on the one side, the typological images of Jesus’ sacrifice: the gifts of the just Abel, the offerings of our father Abraham, the immaculate offering of the High Priest Melchisdech, as the text of the missal reads up to this day. Exactly opposite, you see a depiction deepening all these scenes and gestures of the Last Supper: Everything is painted in accordance with the style of the liturgy of the time the painting was made: a carefully-laid table, Jesus wearing liturgical vestment, and the disciples kneeling down and receiving the communion – pure inculturation.

And then comes the vanishing point, of course, to which everything else is directed and by which everything else can really be made intelligible: In the apsis, larger-than-life, there is no judge, no sovereign, nor someone triumphant, but Christ Immanuel – the God-with-us: His widely-opened hands are a symbol of the words below them: “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt. 12,28). In the creation account of the Old Testament, the creation’s end and crowning glory is – the Sabbath: day of rest and festive time. With the word quoted above, which is an invitation, Jesus in person makes himself the Sabbath for us: It is in him that we find whatever all creatures and we ourselves long for.    

This is the message conveyed by the stone Bible made up of images. In the transept behind, we find scenes taken from the life of Saint Antony of Padua, the patron of this church: They depict how he grasped the Lord’s invitation for himself, making, so to speak, his own life a picture book of the gospel. And every one of us is invited to do so in the place or situation where he or she has to master his or her life: here in Regensburg, in Münster or in Tamale. It is the one Lord who calls us all. And across all boundaries of language and culture we are brothers and sisters in spirit, joined in gratitude for that which the Lord has promised us. And that is what we will now do.