Edith Stein, Advent, and the Collision of the Two Covenants

God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers. He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues.
—Nostra Aetate


Seven years before her baptism, Edith Stein tried to attend what would have been her first Mass. On Christmas Eve, 1915, a fellow Göttingen student suggested they attend the Vigil together. Stein recounts in her unfinished autobiography:

Liane proposed we go to the midnight Mass in the Catholic church. She had probably done that often in Munich. I was not at all familiar with it but gladly agreed to the suggestion. So we went to the Kurze Strasse that dark winter night. But there was not a soul in sight anywhere, and when we arrived at the church we found the door securely locked. Apparently the Mass of Christmas was to be celebrated only in the morning. Disappointed, we had to go home.[1]

This anecdote is an allegorist’s fantasy. A born and raised Jew sets out to encounter a Messiah she does not confess, only to find the door to his presence locked.

On the night of his arrival, she misses him. Her efforts frustrated, she returns home and joins her people in a practice with which they are all too familiar: she waits for morning. Like Job straining for an answer too long in coming (Job 6:11, 32:16), like the Psalmist mustering the courage to face the night (Ps 27:14, 31:24, 33:20, 37:7-9, 38:15, 39:7, 40:1 and passim), like the prophets entreating the Lord’s betrothed to remember his vows—she waits (Lam 3:25-26, Mic 7:7, Zeph 3:8). Betrothal marks the delay between promise and fulfillment; it is to be tensed, stretched, expectant. And this is the lot of Israel, affianced by the Lord of Hosts: “On that day, says the Lord, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ for you will no longer call me, ‘My master’” (Hos 2:16). Seen in the light of Israel’s history, the period of seven-year delays separating the patriarch Jacob from his desired bride is not anomalous, but the law itself (see Gen 29). Stein would recapitulate this delay millennia later and receive her first communion in 1922, seven years after she had been turned away from a Savior she did not yet call her Spouse.

Even after her baptism, Stein would continue to bear the history of Israel within her flesh. Recalling the events that precipitated her entry into the Carmelite Order, she writes:

I had heard of rigorous measures against the Jews before. But now it dawned on me that once again God had put a heavy hand upon His people, and that the fate of this people would also be mine . . . I felt almost relieved that I was now caught up in the common fate.[2]

Stein had already expressed a desire to enter religious life soon after her confirmation. Knowing that this would further embitter her devoutly Jewish mother, however, she would once again “have to wait patiently.”[3]

In time she would get her wish, but the circumstances availing her entry into Carmel are curiously tied not to her identity as a Catholic, but as a Jew. Fearing she was too much in the eye of an increasingly hostile public, the director of the German Institute for Scientific Pedagogy—founded and supported by the Catholic Teachers’ Organization—recommended Stein quit her popular lecture circuit in 1932. Her long-deferred desire to become a nun had become almost overwhelming by then: “Lately this waiting had become very hard for me.”[4] But with the rising swell of anti-Semitism in Germany, and now with no work, Stein concluded that her mother would find the safety of a convent advantageous. Seized by “the common fate of her people,” providence had arranged that Edith Stein enter Carmel through the fact of her Jewishness.


Of the canonically recognized religious orders in the Catholic Church, only one claims an Old Testament saint for its founder: the Carmelites. Named for the mountain on which Elijah called down fire before the servants of Baal (1 Kgs 18), Carmelites consider this witness to the Transfiguration their architect and exemplar (Matt 17). Stein notes in a beautiful essay that her order’s specific charism is taken from the prophet’s first words in Scripture:

“As the Lord God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word” (1 Kgs 17:1). To stand before the face of the living God—that is our vocation. The holy prophet set us an example. He stood before God’s face because this was the eternal treasure for whose sake he gave up all earthly goods . . . Elijah stands before God’s face because all of his love belongs to the Lord [and] by living penitentially, he atones for the sins of his time . . . He stands before God’s face like the angels before the eternal throne, awaiting God’s sign, always ready to serve.[5]

Thus on April 15, 1934, Edith Stein, dressed in a bridal gown, entered the religious order most consciously rooted in the faith of her birth. Her mission ever after would be, quite literally, seraphic. She is still asked to wait, but the waiting is now different. For it is worth noting that Israel was waiting not only for the Son of David, but for another Elijah (Mal 4:5). Now Elijah has already come (Matt 17:12), and his children take up their place in expectant adoration. They wait not that the Savior would make his face known, but that they might become its icon: “We thus fulfill our Rule when we hold the image of the Lord continually before our eyes in order to make ourselves like him. We can never finish studying the Gospels.”[6] In Stein’s view, we might say that Carmelite waiting is not that the Lord would merely be present, but catholic. She speculates in Finite and Eternal Being that, if Jesus Christ reveals the new humanity per se, then it would follow that his personality could not be reduced to that of a single character. In other words, he requires the cosmos to refract his charm. She writes:

In Christ there is the total plenitude of humanity . . . This is what makes the figure of the Savior, as it is depicted in the truthful simplicity in the Gospels, so mysterious and unfathomable. He is wholly human [ganz Mensch] and precisely for this reason unlike any other human. He cannot be apprehended and comprehended as a “character” like Peter or Paul. Any attempt, therefore, to bring us into intimate contact with our Lord by depicting his life and character in the manner of a biographical portrait means really an impoverishment and a narrowing down of his life to some particular aspects, and in some instances it even means a distortion and falsification.[7]

While modern attempts to uncover the “personality” of Christ in the gospels are often motivated by a kind of piety, Stein thinks this misguided. Of course, this is not to deny that the Word Incarnate is an individual person. Her point is merely that this person is the fount of all personality, that the universe has life only in and through his name (Cf. Phil 2:9-11, Col 1:16-20). “Perhaps,” she rightly wonders, “we may venture to say that the creation of the first human being may be regarded as the beginning of the incarnation of Christ.”[8] Stein has no conception of Christ apart from the totus christus, no image of his body lacking its members. And it is this body, whole and entire, which the Carmelite Order awaits.

As with Israel, the waiting is itself the fidelity, the mechanism of purification. If Elijah stood before the living God that Israel might chastely endure the delay of Christ, Elijah’s children so stand because the Son has already come, and he too awaits his dazzling bride. Those dedicated to the religious life are thus both bride and friend of the bridegroom, cleansing by a “silent, life-long martyrdom” the spouse they themselves compose.[9]

After all, Israel’s fate could be swayed by the prayers of a single prophet; Stein sees a similar logic at work in the religious life. Through small and hidden sacrifices made by those unknown to the world, the entire universe receives a christic face: “In the silent dialogue of souls with their Lord, consecrated to God, the events of church history are prepared that, visible far and wide, renew the face of the earth.”[10] Stein’s upbringing in a Jewish family prepared her for this asceticism of anticipation. Her entry into Carmel was not its erasure, but its consummation. She thus stands as a question to the Church she entered—can our waiting be separated from Israel’s?


While embarrassment over its Jewish origins has sadly plagued Christianity since the early Church,[11] each liturgical year we are allotted an interval of atonement, of reckoning with the tree onto whose trunk we are the graft (Rom 11:17-24).[12] Advent is the season wherein the Church adopts Israel’s expectant longing. For in Advent we are asked to look through the eyes of the exiled, to be alert in our anticipation of the Messiah. So commands the gospel reading for the season’s first Sunday:

Stay awake! For you do not know on which day your Lord will come. Be sure of this: if the master of the house had known the hour of night when the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and not let his house be broken into. So too, you also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come” (Matt 24:42-44).

Admittedly, this exhortation sounds odd. Christ is already present with his disciples, and Matthew’s final memory is that this presence will abide (Matt 28:20). But the teaching is clear: the Son of Man who is here is still to come. This will be the law of the Church, who is Christ’s presence tarrying with his absence, a body still growing into its full stature (Eph 4:13). Warned that she will have no earthly city (Heb 13:14), she nevertheless bears the Kingdom wherever she wanders, for that Kingdom lies within (Luke 17:21).[13]

The life and thought of Edith Stein help us contemplate the meaning of Advent. As a partaker of the anticipation inscribed within Judaism and Christianity, she discloses what it means to be a people of promise and presence, whose lot is to adore the face of him who is coming again. She inhabits the braided destinies of Israel and the Church, which St. Paul affirms in a famously difficult passage thus:

I do not want you to be ignorant of this mystery, brothers and sisters, so that you may not be conceited: Israel has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in, and in this way all Israel will be saved . . . for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable (Rom 11:25-26, 29).

Stein explores this mystery perhaps most profoundly in a narrative poem called “Conversation at Night,” in which an unnamed “Mother” hears a knock at her door and opens it to find a pilgrim.[14] The stranger says not to fear, for she has “no other weapons than raised hands.” She then adds that she has traveled far and seeks a place to rest her head. Mother replies: “Looking for lodgings? / . . . I am reminded of that pure one, the Immaculate, / Who once about this time also sought lodgings.”[15] We learn this occurs around Christmas, when Mary and Joseph were sent to a stable for lack of an open room. Unlike them, this woman has been welcomed and taken in. Mother even wonders if the Virgin herself has appeared to her and asks whether this is the case. The stranger replies:

I am not she—but I know her very well,

And it is my joy to serve her.

I am of her people, her blood,

And once I risked my life for this people.

You recall her when you hear my name.

My life serves as an image of hers for you.[16]

The response is puzzling, but upon reflection Mother remembers that she knows a woman of Mary’s blood, one who risked her life for her people with no other weapon than “hands raised in supplication”: Queen Esther. The poem then retells her story, making particular use of the Septuagint’s additional chapters describing Esther’s prayer for Israel. She tells of her time in Abraham’s bosom after her death, and the historical events which proceed thereafter:

I saw the church grow out of my people,

A tenderly blooming sprig, saw that her heart was

The unblemished, pure shoot of David.

I saw flowing down from Jesus’ heart

The fullness of grace into the Virgin’s heart.

From there it flows to the members as the stream of life . . .

. . . Her head was adorned with a crown of stars

And like the sun she was bathed in heavenly light.

But now I knew that I was bound to her

From eternity in accordance with God’s direction—forever.

My life was only a beam of hers.[17]

In Esther’s telling, Mary is like a prized fruit grown in the soil of Israel. It is as though the people had been cultivated and pruned until a “pure shoot” should arise. She also makes the interesting comment that the Virgin’s heart was replete with grace flowing from the heart of Jesus. Here, the heart of Jesus is the logically prior reality, granting Mary the life whereby it too can one day be conceived. Esther says she sees herself bound to the Virgin “from eternity” and inverts the root/branch imagery which Paul uses in Romans 11. It is Esther’s life which is the “beam” of Mary’s, not the reverse.

The wanderings and lineage of Israel are like the tributaries whose headwaters gather at the Virgin’s feet, and it is she whom their history has conspired to produce. But if Mary is the preeminent daughter of Israel, she is also mother of the Church (as the literal bearer of Jesus’ body). In one and the same person, the destinies of the two covenants collide. As a daughter of Zion and mother of Christ, the Virgin’s solicitude encompasses both people. And if the first advent of her Son occasioned a parting of the ways, his second advent is unto their reconciliation, for “Only when Israel has found the Lord, / Only then when he has received his own, / Will he come in manifest glory. / And we must pray for this second coming.” Having heard Esther’s plea, Mother responds:

Like once the first—I understand exactly.

You were the pathfinder for the first coming.

Now you are clearing the way to the kingdom of glory.

You came to me—do I now understand the message?

The Queen of Carmel sent you . . .

. . . Her people, which are yours: your Israel,

I’ll take it up into the lodgings of my heart.

Praying secretly and sacrificing secretly,

I’ll take it home to my Savior’s heart.[18]

Mother promises to do the works of penance on behalf of Esther and her people. The language of secrecy also echoes Stein’s comments in her essay on Carmel, in which the “silent, life-long martyrdom” was the mark of the religious vocation. But here, sacrifice is joined to Esther’s exhortation that “we must pray for this second coming.” Why? Because the salvation of Israel is enfolded within the second advent of Christ, and each augurs the other. The Church must therefore be a people of longing for the simple reason that Israel is not yet whole. Advent’s liturgical rhythm is framed by this common hope.

True, the Church longs for the Messiah as one who has already come, and this all-important fact changes the nature of her waiting. But she still waits. She still lives and breathes as one who is not yet full grown (see Eph 4:13), with both the concern of a faithful daughter and the attention of a devoted mother. To be an Advent Church is therefore to be a Marian Church, to embrace Christ with a love that, having treasured his presence, abides in his absence. In other words, it means joining Israel in tensed expectation. At the end of Stein’s poem, Esther prophesies:

We’ll meet again on the great day,

The day of manifest glory,

When above the head of the Queen of Carmel

The crown of stars will gleam brilliantly,

Because the twelve tribes will have found their Lord.[19]

There is a tradition in the Catholic Church that a priest’s hands are wrapped with a cloth cut from his mother’s bridal gown at his ordination. When the mother dies, her hands are then bound by this anointed fabric, that she might present her child as a dowry when she greets her Lord. Stein sees a similar logic at work in the relationship between Israel and Mary. Evoking Revelation 12:1—A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars—Stein interprets the crown of twelve stars as a sign of Israel’s redemption. For Stein, Mary’s love and care for the people who formed her is, like the gift and calling of God, irrevocable (Rom 11:29). Her reward is that they would be her eternal crown.  

Stein’s conviction is that Christ’s return and Israel’s salvation are included in one and the same hope. Jesus’ mother is the sacrament of this unity, the visible sign that the mystical body she bore has no life apart from those who conceived her. Advent then invites the Church into the Marian mold, to ache like an expectant Israel while still adoring the child who came. Like Edith Stein entering Carmel, she continues to bear the fate of the Jews while celebrating her nuptials with Christ.[20]

In this unity of adoration and expectation, Scripture’s final prayer—Maranatha, come Lord Jesus—becomes the doxology common to the covenants (Rev 22:20). Nostra Aetate states that “the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice.”[21] But maybe such a voice already sings, one whose timbre resonates with the longing of Israel and Church alike. Maybe the Magnificat is the anthem of the new creation.

Until then we wait and sing as those betrothed. For “this is what God likes / patient waiting till the hour comes.”[22] The life of Edith Stein is a witness to this patience, a testament to the fidelity of waiting, in short, an icon of Advent. This was the posture of her people, and it is the vocation of her Church. The body of Christ therefore adopts the Jewish longing, because Israel is the Virgin’s crown. Would that we see our Mother so adorned.

[1] Edith Stein, Life in a Jewish Family: 1891-1916 (Washington D.C.: ICS, 1986), 385.

[2] “The Road to Carmel,” republished and translated in Sr. Teresia Posselt, O.C.D., Edith Stein: The Life of a Philosopher and Carmelite (Washington D.C.: ICS, 2005), 115 and 117.

[3] Ibid., 118.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Edith Stein, “On the History and Spirit of Carmel,” in idem. The Hidden Life: Essays, Meditations, Spiritual Texts (Washington D.C.: ICS Publications, 2014), 1-2.

[6] “On the History and Spirit of Carmel,” 4.

[7] Edith Stein, Finite and Eternal Being (Washington D.C.: ICS, 2002), 524.

[8] Ibid., 523.

[9] “On the History and Spirit of Carmel,” 6.

[10] Edith Stein, “The Prayer of the Church,” in The Hidden Life, 13.

[11] Any evaluation of the early Church’s attitude toward Israel must reckon with two concomitant realities: first, gnostic heresies were often defined by their rejection of the Old Testament, its preservation in turn serving as a mark of Christian orthodoxy. Second, this valuation of the Old Testament nevertheless did historically coincide with an often unreflective attitude regarding the meaning of Israel. The legacy of the early Church can thus neither be completely rejected nor adopted and, as ever, requires probative theological engagement. For those working specifically within the Roman Catholic tradition, Nostra Aetate is an indispensable yet inchoate development.

[12] Advent has also been traditionally viewed as a penitential season, like Lent.

[13] The understanding of the Kingdom lying “within” has been upheld and preserved largely through the mystical tradition. This is an essential aspect of the gospel. It should be added, however, that there is another aspect to the Kingdom, which involves proclaiming “good news to the poor, freedom to the prisoner, recovery of sight to the blind, and setting the oppressed free” (Luke 4:18-19). This is also essential to the gospel and ingredient to its first aspect. So my statement that the Church “bears the Kingdom wherever she wanders” is true, but requires supplementation, since the Kingdom remains inchoate wherever the qualities of Lk.4:18-19 do not obtain.

[14] The significance of the name “Mother” is most likely layered by the following: 1) Stein’s physical mother, who was the formative religious and personal influence on her life given that her father died at a young age (see Life in a Jewish Family, 28-32); 2) the superior of Stein’s Carmelite convent; 3) the Virgin Mary. Of course, the last of these will be discussed in the poem itself, but one of the recurring themes of Stein’s writings is that all are called to participate in the maternal “office” of the Virgin by bringing Christ to birth in our particular place and time. In this way, “Mother” is actually a kind of “Everyman,” since all are called to participate in the Virgin’s work of saying fiat to the will of God.

[15] “Conversation at Night,” in The Hidden Life, 128-129.

[16] Ibid., 129.

[17] Ibid., 132.

[18] Ibid., 133.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The antecedent for “she” in this sentence is intentionally ambiguous.

[21] Nostra Aetate, 4.

[22] Edith Stein, “I am Always in Your Midst,” in The Hidden Life, 118.

Featured Image: Photo taken by Basd114, A pair of stained glass windows designed about the life of Edith Stein, created by artist Huub Kurvers, taken on 8 April 2015; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0 


Travis Lacy

Travis Lacy is a PhD Candidate in Systematic Theology at the University of Notre Dame.

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