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.
Through the Incarnation of the Son, however, a member of this heavenly society becomes a human being. This marks the beginning of human society being fashioned according to the spirit and form of the heavenly society. True, psychological and sociological principles of community living are not thereby excluded, but they are given a final point of reference that lies beyond their somewhat uncertain and precarious doctrines in God himself.
In fact all earthly ordinances concerning personal life and interpersonal relationships have been objectively transcended since God in Christ totally involved himself, for the sake of the whole of humanity, in the sphere of the life of the Trinity. Saying that this in itself is objectively true does not yet mean that men acknowledge the subjective implications of this truth.
For on the one hand, through the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:14ff.), men will have to be confronted with this objective truth; yet on the other hand, when thus confronted they will have to ratify it in freedom or remain free to reject it out of hand. It is at this point, when we begin to see something of the dramatic nature of the history of our liberation, that the role of the Church becomes apparent.
Taking all things into consideration we see that the Church’s role in the scheme of our salvation can only be a mediatorial yet dynamic one. She reenacts on a higher and universal level the part played by God’s personal representatives among the people of Israel, that is, that of being the representative of God to the people and of the people to God. Under the New Covenant, this “people” is the whole of humanity.
Hence the role of the Church in the world is not to be a kind of alternative society, shut off and enclosed, a community or society preoccupied with its own internal affairs, a spiritual “society of the perfect” that exists side by side with the secular order. The whole justification for her existence lies in her communicating to the rest of mankind the universally valid truths concerning God’s liberating and redeeming work with fundamental openness, which in itself is but the continuation of God’s involvement in Christ for the sake of the world.
For this purpose, the Church only needs such visible structure as is necessary to permit her message and her genuineness to be proclaimed convincingly in the world. The question is, however, in what does this structure consist? It is built principally of men who have solidly affirmed their faith in God’s total involvement in the work of liberating the world and have given it their full assent; in the act of believing, they lay hold of the reality of their liberation and seek to realize this in their own lives. Their faith leads them to submit to incorporation (by baptism) into that society offered by God to the world.
This done, they take part in the mystery of the Eucharist, which mystery is itself but the total involvement of God himself. Here the Father offers to us his Son under the form of his supreme action on our behalf, giving us his flesh and hisblood outpoured for our sustenance. They share, too, in a forgiveness of sins that is constantly renewed by the sacrament of conversion (or penance); they partake of the Holy Spirit, which fills the divine society. There is a ministry in the Church that exists to exercise a stewardship of these mysteries of God’s gift of himself to the faithful.
It is a service rendered to those who serve, a ministry of reconciliation toward those whose task it is to reconcile. It is in fact no more than this, nor should it be accorded any greater importance. It does, however, serve the function (as the Pauline Epistles show) of training people in that kind of obedience demanded by the Church and without which the Church would not be able to proclaim and witness convincingly to the obedience of Jesus to the Father. This obedience which the Church requires is a necessary factor, too, because the Church of necessity has, for the sake of the world, to reflect something of that absolute unity which characterizes the society of the divine Persons, in which nothing is private, where there are no divisions and no rivalries, but where the principle of unity is a love that encompasses and overrides all individuality.
In the Church, therefore, each member is a person insofar as he assumes the unique role to which God by his grace has called him, in order that he may be truly a person, through serving the interests of the community as a whole. St. Paul’s image of the Body and its many members illustrates this principle and has to stand the test of the most difficult situations (cf. Acts 21:17-30) and to hold good in the face of the almost disastrous tensions that arise from time to time between the “stronger” and the “weaker” brethren (see Romans 14-15; 1 Corinthians 8).
The Church, therefore, is Christ’s fellow servant in his task of liberating the world. She shares with God in his work of sharing himself in Christ with the world. Hence the act of sharing must be at the very center of the Church’s life and being. She can only be truly herself insofar as she accepts the fact that she is the means of God’s sharing and imparting himself, and she can only fulfill her true nature in the process of distributing what she herself has been privileged to share in.
St. Paul describes her as the Body of Christ, that Body which is actualized at the very place where Christ shares himself with those who share with him in the sacrificial meal (see 1 Corinthians 10:16ff.) and charges those who receive him to imitate his own disposition and willingness to share and to give (see 2 Corinthians 8-9). St. John draws the most obvious conclusion when he says that Christ “laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16).
In the Church, therefore, there exists no other difference between the celebration of the sacraments and our everyday existence, save that between the source and its issue. Here, in the dynamic life of the Church and nowhere else, all the mysteries of our faith — the Trinity, the doctrine of the Person of Christ, the doctrines about the Church, the sacraments, the mystery of Christian living — come to be seen as nothing less than God’s imparting of his life-giving love to us; and this love flows through the Church and out into the world.
Since God was made man there is no shorter way of answering the question as to who it is that under the New Covenant is the object of God’s choosing than by stating the whole sequence — Christ, the Church, mankind; and we include under mankind, of course, the whole cosmos. All interpolations into this sequence must be regarded as purely relative or provisional; they are related to the final goal for which God has risked the whole of his involvement, that is, the world as a whole. “For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16, emphasis added).
Indeed, from the Christian point of view, the world is no longer an anonymous collection of individuals; for in proportion as the light of heaven penetrates through Christ and the Church into the darkness of the world, so it visibly gives personality to the whole human community. Each man encountering this light receives a call and a commission; to him is given the task of living for others, and he becomes one of those who have begun to grasp the meaning of communion and sharing.
We are back once more to the parable of the leaven. The dough that is as yet unleavened is a shapeless mass of private existences that, because they are under the dominion of the powers of this world, are pushed together into a collective lump. The leavening promises two things that cannot be seen in isolation: on the one hand, a release from merely private existence in order that men may become fully individual, and on the other hand, a release from collective existence for the sake of a genuine communion and sharing.