Hans Urs von Balthasar, a Swiss theologian, is widely considered one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century. He wrote over 60 works of theology, spirituality and philosophy, including his great trilogy: the 7 volume work The Glory of the Lord, the five volume work Theo-Drama, and the three volume work Theo-Logic. His most famous individual works include Prayer, Heart of the World, Mysterium Paschale and Cosmic Liturgy. “Just as Love Alone Is Credible captures the essence of the seven-volume The Glory of the Lord, so does Engagement with God explain his five-volume Theo-Drama. But in Engagement with God von Balthasar does more: by setting his account of the drama of Christian discipleship against the anti-Christian ideologies of the 1960s von Balthasar brings his theology to bear on the highest cost of discipleship — martyrdom — by seeing the martyr as the mirror of God’s own involvement in the human race through his own martyred Son. One can hardly read a more sober, and yet exhilarating, account of what it means to live committed to God’s own commitment to the world.
The Encounter Between the Chooser and the Chosen
We have perhaps moved too swiftly in our argument and not taken sufficient notice of the yawning chasms that open up all around us and obstruct the easy road to the synthesis into which we have been attempting to resolve the involvement of God and the involvement of Christ. We must retrace our steps a little and ponder the whole difficulty inherent in such a synthesis. Christ is the instrument of God’s saving action on our behalf, how, therefore, is it possible that we too should ourselves be sharers with God in this saving work?
This will be a really difficult question to answer if we consider that God began his decisive work for us in the earthly life of Jesus, which, however, ended in disaster; and that the crucial steps in this work of redemption were taken when Christ underwent his atoning death on the Cross, suffered the agony of God-abandonment, descended into hell, and rose again on the third day. This last and most important sequence of events would seem to be impatient of any copying or imitation by us. For as long as we live, we ourselves can only perform finite acts against which the death and Resurrection of Christ, which clearly are not finite but eternal in character, stand out in sharp contrast.
Let us look first at the pattern of Christ’s saving work. His earthly life runs a horizontal course from his Incarnation and his birth to the moment of his death. Then comes a sharp break, a drop: “He descended into Hell.” He arrives in the realm where time and space are nonexistent, whereas for us (on Holy Saturday), chronological or surface time continues.
Then from the timeless, spaceless darkness of hell, the power and the glory of the Father resurrects him “on the third day” and raises him vertically to the horizontal plane he had left, lifting him whole and entire, body and soul into the eternal life of the Godhead.
Such a pattern of life (if we may call it this) embraces a compass infinitely and incomprehensibly vaster than that normally reckoned to be the scope of an ordinary human existence. It spans the whole of time and extends beyond this into an eternity of two kinds. The first of these is the timelessness of the underworld, where all dimensions of time are lost and where all is reduced to a timeless “point of death”; and the second is what we may call “time which has no end”, where the doors are flung open on to an expanse of eternity that stretches endlessly in every direction (a difficult notion indeed to describe adequately).
Now according to St. Paul, the whole of this extended pattern of life is to be taken as the measure of our life as Christians here on earth. If, according to him, we have already died with the dying Christ — sacramentally in baptism and existentially through our being crucified with Christ (see Galatians 6:14) — but at the same time have been raised with him and given a place in heaven with him, in Christ Jesus (see Ephesians 2:6), we therefore live within a horizon and from sources that lie beyond the limits of our mortality.
How, therefore, is this to be possible? How does God’s involvement in Christ impinge upon our involvement as Christians? Is this divine/human encounter so wholly beyond our scrutiny that we can only argue that somehow, though in our mortal condition sinful and fallen, we are at the same time justified by God through Christ, which we may find difficult to appreciate but which we nonetheless accept in faith? Or is there a point where the divine intersects with the human, perceptible to our conscious minds, that we can realize as Christians?
Under the Old Covenant, we saw that Israel’s response to God when he first called her by his grace was a response of total compliancy to the will of God and a corresponding willingness to be led into freedom by him. At least ideally this ought to have been so, for Israel never really succeeded in living up to her calling. Under the New Covenant, it is in the attitude of the Word-Made-Man, Jesus of Nazareth, that we can perceive the full realization of this total and unconditional willingness to submit to the guidance of the Father’s will. For only when in all seriousness a man declares in advance his willingness to agree to every divine decree, even should the decree be hidden and incalculable, can it be said that, in making this kind of response, his will is in perfect harmony with the will of God.
The gift of God’s grace alone, of course, makes this possible; but no violence is done to human nature in making such an act of submission. When a man says Yes to God, it is possible that God has destined him to suffering, darkness, and dereliction, a prospect sufficient to strike terror into the hearts of finite and mortal beings, and to cause them to draw back in fright because this is far more than the ordinary man can demand of himself, even when stretched to the limit. Hence there arises a conflict (like that on the Mount of Olives) between “my will” and “thy will”; yet it is the pact with God, made at the beginning, that finally triumphs over the promptings of his own will, because in the last resort his deepest inclination is to say Yes to the will of God.
Only thus can a proper balance be achieved between the divine commandment and human consent. For under these circumstances, this allowing God to have his way is by no means the same as resigning oneself to fate or to the dominion of some superior being; it is rather a childlike surrender in trust of all that we have or are to the love of God, which we may indeed no longer feel, but which still, nonetheless, attracts our love in return. This is consent in its purest form as we find it in the New Testament.
It is, after all, the action on which the whole of Jesus’ existence is founded, who as God and man brought this aspect of unceasing self-surrender from the sphere of the divine into the midst of human existence. It is similarly the action fundamental to the life of his Mother, Mary, who signifies by her Ecce ancilla that she too has totally and unconditionally surrendered to the divine will; for she is purely womb, purely Matrix and Materia and Mater from which God may fashion whatever he will.
She is thus a figure of the Church that, unlike the Synagogue of old, does not hang back reluctantly while her leader goes forward obediently, but corresponds in all things to her Head. In Mary heaven and earth finally converge, here the finite encounters the infinite. Heaven, being masculine, takes the initiative and bestows its infinity on the earth; the earth, endowed with the quality of infinity, responds accordingly and brings forth her fruit. In the same spirit Mary (and in her, the holy Church), without knowing what would happen, accompanied her Son through all the foreordained events of his life, through the God-abandonment on the Cross, through the darkness of death to the Resurrection. Thus we can see that the whole of God’s action in Jesus Christ by grace can become the model for our involvement with God: in the work of liberating the world.
We now also understand why Jesus promised his disciples that they would “accomplish greater works” than he had done on earth. For the things he accomplished during his earthly ministry were but parables of his coming Passion and Resurrection. For example, he healed the sick, changed few loaves into many, walked on the water; and these are all stages on the way toward a reality that he describes as finishing his course (see Luke 13:32). Christians, however, through participating in his perfection now accomplished, derive from this the power to be effective in the world, aided as they are by the Holy Spirit, who himself proceeds from the perfected work of God.
This affords us another important insight. God acted in Christ, painstakingly and tirelessly for the sake of the poor, the sick, the stranger, the hungry, and the naked, for all those in fact imprisoned in the “Egyptian bondage” of this world of alienation, until eventually he took upon himself all our fallenness in the person of his Son. For Jesus expressly identified himself with all the poor of this world (see Matthew 25:35ff.), in order that the Father might be able to recognize them all in him and therefore see him in all of them. If, however, we are to see the involvement of men as being harnessed at source with the divine involvement, then to be a Christian cannot simply mean to attempt to imitate God’s involvement in our ethical, social, and political involvements by equally declaring our solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the captive, and those who endure torture.
Rather the significant factor in being a Christian is that he does all with reference to and in dependence on the ultimate source of his actions, through loving first and above all things, the God who loves us in Christ in order that he may then, by means of and together with love, turn his attention to the needs of those who are the object of the love of God. Only if we start from this “Alpha” will our involvement lead us to the “Omega” of the man who is loved, only thus will we succeed in caring for him inwardly in order that he may find his true destiny, only thus will we achieve that solidarity with him which is only possible in God.
In the process of all this, however, we encounter the primary object of the love of God, namely, Jesus Christ, the God-man, who is at once the fullest expression of the divine activity as he is its consummation and who, being the focus of divine and human love, can never be disregarded nor bypassed. He is no mere transitory intermediary who will eventually be no longer required; he is in his role as mediator the everlasting midpoint in whom the love of God for us shines brightly and in whom our love for God and for our neighbor is gathered together into a unit.
We can understand therefore why Paul, after the long labor of dictating the first letter to the Corinthians, finally takes the pen in his own hand to sign it and adds a last sentence (which presumably comes from a liturgy with which the Corinthians were familiar). “If anyone has no love for the Lord [Jesus],” he writes, “let him be accursed” (1 Corinthians 16:22).
Because if he does not love the Lord, he does not belong to the Christian community; he has no part in the table of the Lord, where Christ gives himself in love; he has not even understood the very heart of the Christian faith. Similarly, the Jesus of the Johannine writings demands that we love him, since the whole essence of the faith is simply that we should understand that the love that characterizes the life of the Trinity has been manifested in him, and in him has been abundantly proved (see John 8:42; 14:15, 21, 23-24, 28; 15:21, 23-24; 16:27; 21:15ff; 1 John 2:15; 4:20; 5:iff.).
To say that love is the communion of Christians is not simply to enunciate an abstract principle; rather in the Christian communion of love we share in a personal act of God himself, the tip of which may be seen shining in the person of Christ, but which in its depths contains the interpersonal life of the Blessed Trinity and in its breadth embraces the love of God for the whole world.