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The Mystery at the Center of Our Faith | Hans Urs von Balthasar | The Introduction to To the Heart of the Mystery of Redemption | Ignatius Insight

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All over the world, the best young people are seeking God. They would like to discover the paths where they can meet him, where they can experience him, where they can be challenged by him. They are tired of sociological and psychological expedients, of all the banal substitutes for the truly miraculous.

In order to respond to their desire—which corresponds, moreover, to that of true Christians of all ages—let us not delay: let us be spiritual men who live and know how to hand on the extraordinary mystery that is at the center of our faith, the mystery without which all Christianity becomes trivial and, thereby, ineffective.

At the center of our faith: the Cross

"For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2): there you have Paul's plan of action. Why? Because the entire Credo of the early Church was focused on the interpretation of the appalling end of Jesus, of the Cross, as having been brought about pro nobis, for us; Paul even says: for each one of us, thus, for me.

"The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

What effect can such an act of love have? Is it a manifestation of solidarity? But if I suffer from cancer, what good does it do me if someone else lets himself be stricken by the same illness in order to keep me company? In order to understand the original faith, we must certainly go beyond the simple concept of solidarity.

For the early Church, this "going beyond" was justified after the experience of the Resurrection. Far from being a private event in the history of Jesus, it is the attestation on God's part that this crucified Jesus is truly the advent of the kingdom of God, of the pardon offaults, of the justification of the sinner, of filial adoption.

Well, then, what did happen on the Cross?

The ancient Roman liturgy speaks of a sacrum commercium, or admirabile commercium, of a mysterious exchange that Saint Paul expresses by these words: "[If] one has died for all, therefore all have died" (2 Cor 5:13), which obviously means: if a single one has the competence and the authorization to die for all, that creates an objective fact that affects them all. Consequently, Paul can continue: "And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised" (2 Cor 5:15).

Four aspects of the mystery

Here we are before a mystery that is usually referred to as redemption. Let us not dwell on questions of terminology. It is clear that, if this Christian mystery is a reality, it is absolutely unique. Consequently, no concept drawn from common experience will be able to exhaust it.

This is what Saint Thomas has demonstrated superlatively in his Christology by aligning four concepts that all capture one aspect of the mystery but that all also need to be surpassed and that are all mutually complementary. Here they are, all indispensable, each by itself insufficient: merit, satisfaction, sacrifice, redemption (or atonement).

We will come back to this. Let us say briefly in advance that all have their references in Scripture, in the Fathers, and in the great theologians. Scripture seems to advocate sacrificial vocabulary (Letter to the Hebrews); the Fathers, atonement/ redemption; Saint Anselm, satisfaction; Saint Thomas, merit, while stressing the interpenetration of the four aspects.

The shortcomings are also immediately apparent:

Sacrifice comes from the Old Testament and nonbiblical religions; now Christ, at once priest and victim, transcends this stage of relations with God.

Atonement/redemption is a vivid image; but from whom would Christ be redeeming us? Not from the devil, who cannot have true rights over sinners; not from God the Father and his justice or his anger, since it is precisely the Father who in his love for the world has handed over his Son to us.

Satisfaction: in one sense, yes: for us who are incapable of reconciling ourselves with God, Christ effectively works this reconciliation, and Scripture instills in us the idea that at the Cross it was not merely a question of a symbol by which God demonstrated that he was already reconciled. But what event in this world could influence God? Change his attitude toward the world? That seems metaphysically impossible.

Finally, merit, supereminently: because, according to Anselm and Thomas, the person who suffers is divine and since he is through his Incarnation the Head of the Body of mankind. But is this merit enough to account for the exchange between Christ and us?

It thus seems that none of the concepts exhausts the mystery. And that is just what we would have to expect.

How, then, shall we proceed?


1. First of all, we are going to say a word about the relation in the Gospel between the earthly Jesus going to his death and the risen Christ as he appears in the faith of the early Christians.

2. It will then be necessary to confront the formidable problem—evangelical and theological at the same time—of the relation between the wrath of God (orge) and his mercy, in other words, the problem of the beloved Son handed over to sinners by God the Father.

3. Finally, a word about the theories of redemption, in particular that ofAnselm, which was the classic one until thirty years ago but nearly unanimously abandoned since.

And as a final word, we will make a very brief reflection on the possibility of proclaiming the mystery of the Cross today.

To the Heart of the Mystery of Redemption

by Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr

Preface by Henri Cardinal de Lubac | Postscript and foreword by Jacques Servais, S.J.

In the 1960's, Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar gave two conferences in Paris on the subject of redemption. One considered the perspective of Christ the Redeemer. The other gave a view of the redemption from the perspective of Mary and the Church, consenting to the sacrifice of Jesus. These two conferences are what Fr. Jacques Servais, S.J., in his foreword calls "a lantern of the Word", shedding light amidst the advancing turmoil of the postconciliar period.

These conferences were later collected by the eminent theologian Henri Cardinal de Lubac, S.J., in a single volume along with an anthology of meditations on the Passion by the mystic Adrienne von Speyr, and selected by von Balthasar.

In this new edition, prepared for the centenary of the birth of Hans Urs von Balthasar, Fr. Servais, the director of Casa Balthasar in Rome, provides an extensive postscript illuminating the text along with the original preface by de Lubac.

"I had the joy of knowing and associating with this renowned Swiss theologian. I am convinced that his theological reflections preserve their freshness and profound relevance undiminished to this day and that they incite many others to penetrate ever further into the depths of the mystery of the Faith, with such an authoritative guide leading them by the hand." -- Pope Benedict XVI

Related Ignatius Insight Articles and Book Excerpts:

• The Question of Suffering, the Response of the Cross | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
• The Cross--For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
• Introduction | From Adrienne von Speyr's The Book of All Saints
• The Conquest of the Bride | From Heart of the World
• Jesus Is Catholic | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
A Résumé of My Thought | From Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | From In The Fullness of Faith: On the Centrality of the Distinctively Catholic
The Cross–For Us | From A Short Primer For Unsettled Laymen
A Theology of Anxiety? | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety
"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | From Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-88) was a Swiss theologian, considered to one of the most important Catholic intellectuals and writers of the twentieth century. Incredibly prolific and diverse, he wrote over one hundred books and hundreds of articles. Read more about his life and work in the Author's Pages section of IgnatiusInsight.com.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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