By Mother Miriam
If God wishes to reveal the love that he harbors for the world, this love has to be something that the world can recognize, in spite of or in fact in, its being wholly other.
Hans Urs von Balthasar was off to a grand 15-volume start on the subject of the glory of God and theological aesthetics when he made that statement. Metaphysics is not dead, but a sword in his hand! If the world relativizes goodness and truth into oblivion, at least beauty can never be defined simply by material usefulness or efficiency. We still want beauty. And at the rock bottom of our desire and quest for beauty is being, the source of all goodness, truth, and beauty.
Lent is our opportunity to refresh our sense of the free and freeing beauty of Christ. For those who are weary of Sunday school stories of Noah’s ark, Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, and Moses and the Ten Commandments, look behind the stories as the Church Fathers did. Fundamental to their thought is the concept of recapitulation, first articulated in Irenaeus’s Against Heresies. The “I am” of Mount Sinai is the same one in St. John, who says “I am” the bread of life, the light of the world, the gate of the sheep, the good shepherd, the true vine, the way, the truth, and the life, and the resurrection and the life. In other words, Jesus Christ is, at the same time, God in relationship with the New Israel and the New Israel in relationship with God.
The chosen people of God, the Israelites, were embraced in the Incarnation, and their Exodus and Passover were recapitulated in Christ’s baptism in the river Jordan. Their 40 years of testing in the desert were repeated in Christ’s temptations in the desert, finally with success. Jesus gave the right human answer to the Tempter: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes out of the mouth of God” (Matt. 4:4, quoting Deut. 8:3).
Lent began with the mind-twisting enticements of Jesus alone with his thoughts, but always in the presence of his Father. So it is with us throughout Lent. Word and Sacrament at every Eucharist — even every Lenten Eucharist — provide human persons, united to God, with the means to answer the tempter in Jesus’ word and intent. God is with us, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and his action in our midst upholds our faith and hope.
Balthasar would have us understand the depths of John’s prologue, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” and Lent is a good time to concentrate upon its depths. Jesus, the Word of God, makes three claims with his life. He preached his kingship: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 4:17). He claimed an authority greater than Moses. In the Sermon on the Mount, he said repeatedly, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you” (Matt. 5:21-48). He claimed perfect transparency to the Father, in accomplishing the Father’s will (John 4:14), in looking to the Father who shows him all things (John 5:19ff), and proclaiming the truth he had heard from his Father (John 8:40).
And Jesus made his claims of kingship, authority, and transparency to the Father in utter poverty. He was the recapitulation of the anawim of the Lord, the poorest of the poor who were not even worth enough to be taken into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. The paradox of Jesus becomes clear when we see his absolute claims in his equally absolute poverty. This poverty is the vulnerability of having renounced all earthly power and possession. It defines prayer as the relentless din of a beggar’s needs entering the ears of God and as the prophets’ attitude of full confidence in God alone. It is the Spirit, God’s breath, that “drives” the one who is poor and obedient into the direction and the paths of the divine will and commission (Mark 1:12; Luke 4:14; Acts 16:6; Rom. 8:14). This poverty of Jesus is such that he has complete solidarity with all such poor.
There was a catastrophic logic to Christ’s solidarity with the poor. It brought him to the cross — not simply to juxtapose his claim of authority with his detachment from earthly power, but because he had to go further, to “be reckoned among those who have broken the law” for our salvation (Luke 22:37). “Being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8).
Without a sense that nothing on earth can transform sin into righteousness, it would be impossible to focus on the starkness of this conclusion. What beauty is there in the ugliness of the cross? Balthasar would have us see events in time from an eschatological perspective: the telos, the goal and end of life, is worth every event and effort on earth only when it is aligned with the Crucified One, whose Resurrection on the third day points the Way for faithful disciples. There is beauty, a beauty aligned with the goal of all things.
Balthasar would also have us understand the uniqueness of the claim Jesus makes with his life and death. In the case of the prophets, the fulfilment of the Word that is uttered through the human prophet lies with God and remains independent of the person of the prophet. The claim that Jesus makes — to be the present Word of God in judgment — permits no distance between the Word and the hearer. Jesus is the Word of God and a human being, “without confusion or division,” refusing any distance between himself and his disciples, the poor, and the sinners. The telos of God, into which Jesus leads the poor and the sinners, finally lies in him. And what other absolute future has a man to offer than his own death?
This is a hard saying. The idea that a mortal being could give itself as the immortal Word is a contradiction that would seem necessarily to burst open and destroy human existence. (In Judas’s despair, it did.) But if the divine and eternal Word wished to give itself adequate expression in mortal flesh, this could not happen in just any kind of human life. That human life, mortal and futile, would have to be wholly, clearly, and publicly at the disposal of the divine Word. The events of that human life would need to be like an alphabet or a keyboard, given over wholly for the act of expressing the Word, in birth and death, speaking and silence, waking and sleeping, success and failure, and everything else that belongs to the substance of human existence.
Equally from the divine perspective, if God’s Word has become flesh, then everything that is to be disclosed — despite every seeming impossibility — must become present in this flesh of Jesus Christ, in his finite time, era, and transitory existence. No contents transcending time, nor contents from another period of time, may be put into it; for this would mean that at most a fraction of the divine Word would have become flesh. Rather, the finite human life in which God’s Word was flesh must be capable of being interpreted in every era to an extent that is immeasurable, indeed infinite.
Paul has the last word in understanding this: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our religion: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16). It is that mysterious word glory that God meant for humanity and achieved in Christ.
What does that accomplish for us who believe in his name? As adopted sons and daughters, in Christ we share in glory through grace (Eph. 1:5-6). Have a blessed Lent.