by Hans Urs von Balthasar


THE VERY FORM OF THE CROSS, extending out into the four winds, always told the ancient Church that the Cross means solidarity: its outstretched arms would gladly embrace the universe. According to the Didache, the Cross is semeion epektaseos, a “sign of expansion”, and only God himself can have such a wide reach: “On the Cross God stretched out his hands to encompass the bounds of the universe” (Cyril of Jerusalem). “In his suffering God stretched out his arms and embraced the world, thus prefiguring the coming of a people which would, from East to West, gather under his wings” (Lactantius). “O blessed Wood on which God was stretched out!” (Sibylline Oracles).

But God can do this only as a man, and his form is different from that of the animals in that “he can stand up straight and spread out his hands” (Justin). And thus it is that he can reach out to the two peoples, represented by the two thieves, and tear down the wall of division (Athanasius). Even in its outward form the Cross is all-inclusive.

But its interior inclusiveness is shown by the opened Heart, out of which the last drops of Jesus’ substance are poured: blood and water, the sacraments of the Church. Both Biblically and philosophically (in the total human context, that is), the heart is conceived to be the real center of spiritual and corporeal man, and, by analogy, it is also seen as the very center of God as he opens himself up to man (I Sam. 13, 14).

In the Old Testament, the heart is still largely understood as the seat of spiritual energy and of thought, while the bosom or “bowels” (as in “bowels of mercy”: rachamim, splanchna) are rather taken to be the seat of the affections.

In the New Testament, however, both aspects coincide with the concept of “heart”. Having one’s “whole heart” turned to God means the opening of the whole man towards him (Acts 8,37; Mt. 22,37). Thus, the heart that was hardened (Mk.10,5, following numerous parallels in the Old Testament) must be renewed: from a stony heart it must become a heart of flesh (Ez. 11,19, etc.; cf 2 Cor. 3,3).

In the wake of Homer, Greek philosophy saw in the heart the center of psychic and spiritual life: for Stoicism, the heart is the seat of the hegemonikon, the guiding faculty in man. Going beyond this, New Testament theology adds, on the one hand, an incarnational element. The soul is wholly incarnate in the heart, and, in the heart, the body wholly becomes the medium for the expression of the soul.

At the same time, the New Testament adds an element of personhood: it is first in Christianity that the entire man – body and soul – becomes a unique person through God’s call and, with his heart, orients towards God this uniqueness that is his.

The narrative of the piercing with the spear and of the outpouring of blood and water should be read as being continuous with the Johannine symbolism of water, spirit and blood, to which also belong the references to “thirst”.

Earthly water again makes thirsty, but Jesus’ water quenches thirst forever (4,13f). “Let whoever is thirsty come to me and drink as one believing in me” (7,37f); thus the believer’s thirst is quenched forever (6,35). Related to this is the extraordinary promise that, in him who drinks it, Jesus’ water would become a fountain leaping up to life eternal (4,14), which is supported by the verse of Scripture: “Streams of living water will spring from his belly” (koilia: 7, 38).

It is at the moment when Jesus suffers the most absolute thirst that he dissolves, to become an eternal fountain. That verse may refer to the ever-present analogy between water and word/spirit (Jesus’ words are “spirit and life”). Even better, it may be related to the “fountain” in Ezechiel’s new temple (Ez. 47; cf Zach. 13,1), with which Jesus compared his own body (2,2t).

In the context of John’s general symbolism, there can be no doubt that in the outpouring of blood and water the evangelist saw the institution of the sacraments of eucharist and baptism (cf Cana: 2, lff.; the unity of water and spirit: 3,5; and of water, spirit and blood; 1 Jn. 5,6, with explicit reference to “Jesus Christ: “he it is that has come by water and blood”).

The opening of the Heart is the handing over of what is most intimate and personal for the use of all. All may enter the open, emptied space. Moreover, official proof had to be provided that the separation of flesh and blood had been realized to the full as a prerequisite for the form of the eucharistic meal. Both the (new) temple and the newly opened fountain where all may drink point to community. The surrendered Body is the locus where the new covenant is established, where the new community assembles. It is at once space, altar, sacrifice, meal, the community and its spirit.

Love Must Be Perceived
by Hans Urs von Balthasar

In Hans Urs von Balthasar’s masterwork, The Glory of the Lord, the great theologian used the term “theological aesthetic” to describe what he believed to the most accurate method of interpreting the concept of divine love, as opposed to approaches founded on historical or scientific grounds. In the newly translated Love Alone Is Credible, von Balthasar delves deeper into this exploration of what love means, what makes the divine love of God, and how we must become lovers of God in the footsteps of saints like Francis de Sales, John of the Cross and Therese of Lisieux.
This excerpt from Love Alone Is Credible is chapter 5, “Love Must Be Perceived.”

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. The inner reality of love can be recognized only by love. In order for a selfish beloved to understand the selfless love of a lover (not only as something he can use, which happens to serve better than other things, but rather as what it truly is), he must already have some glimmer of love, some initial sense of what it is.

Similarly, a person who contemplates a great work of art has to have a gift – whether inborn or acquired through training – to be able to perceive and assess its beauty, to distinguish it from mediocre art or kitsch. This preparation of the subject, which raises him up to the revealed object and tunes him to it, is for the individual person the disposition we could call the threefold unity of faith, hope, and love, a disposition that must already be present at least in an inchoative way in the very first genuine encounter. And it can be thus present because the love of God, which is of course grace, necessarily includes in itself its own conditions of recognizability and therefore brings this possibility with it and communicates it.

After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response. She has awakened love in the heart of her child, and as the child awakens to love, it also awakens to knowledge: the initially empty-sense impressions gather meaningfully around the core of the Thou. Knowledge (with its whole complex of intuition and concept) comes into play, because the play of love has already begun beforehand, initiated by the mother, the transcendent. God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man, and it is precisely this light that allows man to perceive this, the absolute Love: “For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

In this face, the primal foundation of being smiles at us as a mother and as a father. Insofar as we are his creatures, the seed of love lies dormant within us as the image of God (imago). But just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace – in the image of his Son.

Prior to an individual’s encounter with the love of God at a particular time in history, however, there has to be another, more fundamental and archetypal encounter, which belongs to the conditions of possibility of the appearance of divine love to man. There has to be an encounter, in which the unilateral movement of God’s love toward man is understood as such and that means also appropriately received and answered. If man’s response were not suited to the love offered, then it would not in fact be revealed (for, this love cannot be revealed merely ontologically, but must be revealed at the same time in a spiritual and conscious way).

But if God could not take this response for granted from the outset, by including it within the unilateral movement of his grace toward man, then the relationship would be bilateral from the first, which would imply a reduction back into the anthropological schema. The Holy Scriptures, taken in isolation, cannot provide the word of response, because the letter kills when it is separated from the spirit, and the letter’s inner spirit is God’s word and not man’s answer. Rather, it can be only the living response of love from a human spirit, as it is accomplished in man through God’s loving grace: the response of the “Bride”, who in grace calls out, “Come!” (Rev 22:17) and, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Lk 1:38), who “carries within the seed of God” and therefore “does not sin” (1 Jn 3:9), but “kept all of these things, pondering them in her heart” (Lk 2:19, 51). She, the pure one, is “placed, blameless and glorious” (Eph 5:26-27; 2 Cor 11:2) before him, by the blood of God’s love, as the “handmaid” (Lk 1:38), as the “lowly servant” (Lk 1:48), and thus as the paradigm of the loving faith that accepts all things (Lk 1:45; 11:28) and “looks to him in reverent modesty, submissive before him” (Eph 5:24, 33; Col 3:18).

Had the love that God poured out into the darkness of non-love not itself generated this womb (Mary was pre-redeemed by the grace of the Cross; in other words, she is the first fruit of God’s self-outpouring into the night of vanity), then this love would never have penetrated the night and it would never in fact have had the capacity to do so (as a serious reading of Luther’s justus-et-peccator theology illuminates in this regard). To the contrary, an original and creaturely act of letting this be done (fiat) has to correspond to this divine event, a bridal fiat to the Bridegroom. But the bride must receive herself purely from the Bridegroom ([kecharitoméne] Lk 1:28); she must be “brought forward” and “prepared” by him and for him ([paristánai] 2 Cor 11:2; Eph 5:27) [1] and therefore at his exclusive disposal, offered up to him (as it is expressed in the word [paristánai]; cf. the “presentation” in the temple, Lk 2:22 and Rom 6:13f; 12:1; Col 1:22, 28).

This originally justified relationship of love (because it does justice to the reality) in itself threads together in a single knot all the conditions for man’s perception of divine love: (1) the Church as the spotless Bride in her core; (2) Mary, the Mother-Bride, as the locus, at the heart of the Church, where the fiat of the response and reception is real; (3) the Bible, which as spirit (-witness) can be nothing other than the Word of God bound together in an indissoluble unity with the response of faith.

A “critical” study of this Word as a human, historical document will therefore necessarily run up against the reciprocal, nuptial relationship of word and faith in the witness of the Scripture. The “hermeneutical circle” justifies the formal correctness of the word even before the truth of the content is proven. But it can, and must, be shown that, in the relationship of this faith to this Word, the content of the Word consists in faith, understood as the handmaid’s fiat to the mystery of the outpouring of divine love. But insofar as the Word of Scripture belongs to the Bride-Church, since she gives articulation to the Word that comes alive in her, then (4) the Bride and Mother, who is the archetype of faith, must proclaim this Word, in a living way, to the individual as the living Word of God; and the function of preaching (as a “holy and serving office”), like the Church herself and even the Word of Scripture, must be implanted by the revelation of God himself, as an answer to that revelation, as it is illuminated by the relationship between the Church and the Bible.

To be sure, the response of faith to revelation, which God grants to the creature he chooses and moves with his love, occurs in such a way that it is truly the creature that provides the response, with its own nature and its natural powers of love. But this occurs only in grace, that is, by virtue of God’s original gift of a loving response that is adequate to God’s loving Word. And therefore, the creature responds in connection with, and “under the protective mantle” of, the fiat that the Bride-Mother, Mary-Ecclesia, utters in an archetypal fashion, once and for all. [2]

It is not necessary to measure the full scope of the faith achieved in human simplicity and in veiled consciousness in the chamber at Nazareth and in the collegium of the apostles. For the unseen seed that was planted here needed the dimensions of the spirit or intellect to germinate: dimensions that, once again, stand out in a fundamental and archetypal way in the Word of Scripture, but which first unfold in the contemplation of the biblical tradition over the course of centuries –“written on the tables of our hearts” and henceforth “to be known and read by all men” (2 Cor 3:2-3), written “in persuasive demonstrations of spirit and power”, spirit as power and power as spirit (1 Cor 2:4). That which the “Spirit” of God, however, interprets in our hearts with “power” (and which the Church interprets in “service to the Spirit” [2 Cor 3:8]) is nothing other than God’s own outpouring of love in Christ; indeed, the Spirit is the outpouring of the Son of God, “the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor 3:18), since the Lord himself “is Spirit” (2 Cor 3:17).

When Christ is immediately thereafter designated the “Image of God” (2 Cor 4:4), then this expression ought not to be reduced to mythical terms, since myth was definitively left behind with the dimension of the Incarnation of the Word, which surpassed it. He is the “Image”, which is not a merely natural or symbolic expression, but a Word, a free self-communication, and precisely therefore a Word that is always already (in the grace of the Word) heard, understood, and taken in, otherwise, there would be no revelation. There is no such thing as a “dialogical image”, except that which exists at the higher level of the Word, although it remains true – and contrary to what Protestant and existential theology may claim – that the Word preserves and elevates in itself all the value of the image at the higher level of freedom. If the Word made man is originally a dialogical Word (and not merely in a second moment), then it becomes clear that even the level of the unilateral (ethical-religious) teaching of knowledge has been surpassed.

It is not possible that Christ could have written books (“about” something, whether about himself, about God, or about his teaching); the book “about” him must concern the trans-action between him and the man whom he has encountered, addressed, and redeemed in love. This means that the level on which his Holy Spirit expresses himself (in the letter), must necessarily itself be “in the spirit” (of the love of revelation and the love of faith), in order to be “objective” at all. To put it another way, the site from which love can be observed and generated cannot itself lie outside of love (in the “pure logicity” of so-called science); it can lie only there, where the matter itself lies – namely, in the drama of love. No exegesis can dispense with this fundamental principle to the extent that it wishes to do justice to its subject matter.

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
From “Love Alone Is Credible »


[1]          ThWNT, 5:835-40.

[2]          Augustine offers a magnificent description of the archetypal prius, of the perfect Yes in the Confessions (XII, 15; PL 32, 833): “Do you deny that there is a sublime created realm cleaving with such pure love to the true and truly eternal God that, though not coeternal with him, it never detaches itself from him and slips away into the changes and successiveness of time, but rests in utterly authentic contemplation of him alone?… We do not find that time existed before this created realm, for ‘wisdom was created before everything’ (Eccles. [Sir] 1:4). Obviously this does not mean your wisdom, our God, father of the created wisdom… [but] that which is created, an intellectual nature which is light from contemplation of the light. But just as there is a difference between light which illuminates and that which is illuminated, so also there is an equivalent difference between the wisdom which creates and that which is created, as also between the justice which justifies and the justice created by justification… So there was a wisdom created before all things which is a created thing, the rational and intellectual mind of your pure city, our ‘mother which is above and is free’ (Gal 4:26)…. O House full of light and beauty! … During my wandering may my longing be for you! I ask him who made you that he will also make me his property in you, since he also made me” (Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991; reissued as an Oxford World’s Classics paperback 1998], 255-56).