The mysteries of March meet in Mary, the Virgin Mother of God. At the Annunciation she says Yes to the Incarnation of God the Son in her womb. On Calvary she consents to the Sacrifice he offers for the sins of the world. When he rises in glory from the tomb, her fiat flows into a jubilation beyond words. Mary gives her undivided assent to the whole mission of Jesus, from Lady Day to Easter Day and to the ages of ages.
At the beginning, at the very heart of the Incarnation event, stands Mary, the perfect Virgin, who “let it be done unto her,” who was prepared to enter into a physical and spiritual motherly relationship with the person and also the whole work of her Son. (1)
For Balthasar, there can be no Christology without Trinitarian doctrine, but there can likewise be no Christology without Mariology, neither Incarnation nor Cross without the Virgin who said Yes. Adrienne von Speyr said to Balthasar a year or two after her conversion, “if (Mary) is taken away, all you are left with is an abstract Redeemer.” (2) She knew from her own experience that the “Christ alone” (solus Christus) principle of Protestantism threatened to dehumanize Christ. There are no solitary stars in the human galaxy; every man “belongs to a constellation with his fellow men” (einer mitmenschlichen Konstellation). (3) If it is “not good for a man to be alone” (cf. Gen. 2:18), it is not good for the God-Man to be alone. (4) The divine person of the Son is a “subsistent relation”: being Son is “being towards the Father.” Now when he becomes man, he enters the world of human relationships, sanctifying them, raising them, through his relational Trinitarian personality, to a dignity beyond compare. Jesus’ relations with other human beings can never be routine, merely neutral or casual, least of all his relation with Mary, his Mother and Handmaid. As the history of the Reformed denominations proves, to sever the Son from the Mother in whose flesh and by whose faith he became man produces a Christology of unsustainable abstraction.
And that is not all: a Maryless doctrine of Christ inevitably means a coldly impersonal or masculine picture of the Church. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have always seen the Church personified in Mary, the Ever-Virgin Theotokos; the Church is “she,” a person, a woman, Christ’s Bride and our Mother. But, for Protestantism, the Church tends to be an “it” or a “he,” not a surrounding maternal presence but an oppressive institution or a gang of interfering clergymen. In a collection of essays published nearly twenty years ago, commenting on Karl Barth’s “jovially malicious” remark that he had never heard a Roman Catholic sermon on Mary on Swiss radio, Balthasar warned his fellow Catholics of the calamitous effects of their losing “the Marian principle.”
Without Mariology Christianity threatens imperceptibly to become inhuman. The Church becomes functionalistic, soulless, a hectic enterprise without any point of rest, estranged from its true nature by the planners. And because, in this manly-masculine world, all that we have is one ideology replacing another, everything becomes polemical, critical, bitter, humorless, and ultimately boring, and people in their masses run away from such a Church. (5)
Mary’s Yes at the Annunciation
The bond between Jesus and his Mother is spiritual as well as bodily. The idea that it could be merely biological is humanly as well as theologically unthinkable. (6) Mary “devotes herself totally as Handmaid of the Lord to the person and work of her Son,” (7) in soul as well as body, and throughout the whole of her life. St. Augustine, followed by St. Leo, expresses the totality of this mothering by the adage that the Virgin conceived Jesus in her mind by faith before she conceived him in her womb. (8) Everything about Mary is Catholic, “according to the whole.” Her consent to the Incarnation is wholehearted and whole-personed, without reservation and engaging every fiber of her being.
The full consent of the Mother was already required at the time of the Incarnation of the Son… this Yes of Mary had to be a consent of total faith, without limit, without any restriction. For at least three reasons: first, because God, in becoming incarnate in the Virgin, does not violate his creature; secondly, because this Mother had to be capable of introducing her Son into the plenitude of Israel’s religion, into perfect Abrahamic faith; thirdly, because the Incarnation of the Word requires precisely a flesh which itself welcomes him perfectly; in other words, because the faith of this Mother had to encompass her whole person, body and soul, it had to be an incarnate faith. (9)
In the Mariological section of the Theodramatik, Balthasar states as a principle: God “could not use force on his free creation.” (10) The Father does not inflict salvation, does not impose the Savior-Son. He turns to Mary, appeals to her will, waits for her reply. Our God, as Julian of Norwich liked to say, is a courteous Lord. (11) So Mary is not “passively used by God but helps in free faith and obedience, to effect the salvation of men.” (12) She cooperates, in a humble, hand-maidenly way, with the saving work of the Trinity.
For Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr, Marian consent is the “fundamental attitude” of all Christian faith and love, of contemplative prayer and active service, “the original vow, out of which arises every form of definitive Christian commitment to God and in God.” (13) If we want to know what it means to know and love and follow Jesus in the Church, then we must turn in loving devotion to Mary, his Mother and ours. By contrast with all the aggressively masculine, Promethean pictures of what it is to be a Christian, Hans Urs and Adrienne refer us to the heart of the matter, to the immaculate heart of the Mother. There, for example, is to be found the secret of prayer. (14) Praising God in the Magnificat, contemplating Jesus in her heart, prayerfully awaiting the Spirit with the apostles, Mary is the supreme model in prayer as she is in everything else that is Christian. To be Mary is to be prayer. (15)
Mary’s Yes is virginal, the assent of a woman who looks to God’s omnipotence alone for new life and fruitfulness. The virginity of her body is the exact sacrament of her poverty of spirit, her unresisting readiness to receive what God gives her.
Mary’s life must be regarded as the prototype of what the Ars Dei can fashion from a human material which puts up no resistance to him. It is a feminine life which, in any case more than masculine life, awaits being shaped by the man, the Bridegroom, Christ, and God. It is a virginal life which desires no other formative principle but God and the fruit which God gives it to bear, to give birth to, to nourish and to rear. It is at the same time a maternal and a bridal life whose power of surrender reaches from the physical to the highest spiritual level. In all this it is simply a life that lets God dispose of it as he will. (16)
Mary’s virginal Yes is representative. She gives her consent to the Incarnation on behalf of all Israel. She sums up and fulfils but then surpasses all the faith and obedience of her people since Abraham. Israel’s faith was constantly failing, regularly flawed by hesitation, doubt, even flagrant infidelity. Here at last, by the grace of the Immaculate Conception, is the all-pure Daughter of Zion, unreservedly ready to give herself to God.
God looked on “his servant in her lowliness” and did in her the “great things” he promised to “Abraham and his seed,” as Mary herself says in her hymn to grace. But this means that her Yes to the angel summed up and surpassed all the faith and all the obedience of the Old Testament from Abraham onwards. It means, too, that it integrated the Old Covenant with the New, Judaism with the Church.(17)
Mary is Israel in person, Israel at its most perfect and beautiful, the Old Testament fulfilled in the New.
It is not only Israel that Mary represents by her Yes. At the Annunciation she gives her assent on behalf of all mankind, indeed of all creation. To see how this is so, we must follow Balthasar in regarding revelation as a nuptial mystery. Many of the Church Fathers speak of the hypostatic union as a marriage (connubium) of the divine and human natures. In the earliest expressions of this, Mary’s womb is seen as the “bridal chamber” in which the Son of God espouses human nature. Eventually, however, the tradition begins to see that she is more than the venue of the nuptials.
Mary cannot be the impersonal “place” where the marriage bond of the two natures is tied. God does not do violence to his creature, especially not to the woman who represents his covenant. He treats her with respect as a person, as embodying that human nature which his Word and Son will assume and, in that sense, as endowed with a coresponsibility. (18)
Since the Incarnation is not an invasion but a wedding, God wants mankind gladly to say “I will,” to give him its nature freely by a responsive and spousal love. Mary fulfils that role for us all at the Annunciation. Balthasar cherishes St Thomas’ way of saying it:
In order to show that there is a certain spiritual wedlock (matrimonium) between the Son of God and human nature, in the Annunciation the Virgin’s consent was besought in lieu of that of the entire human nature. (19)
In other words, the marriage of divinity and humanity in the one person of Christ does not derive its matrimonial character exclusively from the side of the Bridegroom-Son. No, says Balthasar, it is “a real two-sided mystery of love through the bridal consent of Mary acting for all the rest of created flesh.” (20)
It is precisely as a woman, because she is a woman, that Mary can represent all humanity at the Incarnation. Woman by nature is receptive, responsive, reflective: the womb that receives the seed of man, the answer to his word, the face that shines back its love to him. (21) Now Balthasar argues that, in Old and New Testaments, the relation between God and his creatures is presented in the light of this nuptial mystery. God in his transcendence, as the primary actor and initiator, is analogically male with regard to the creature; the creature in its dependence on God is open and receptive, capax Dei, and therefore, in a certain sense, feminine. (22) It is true, says Balthasar, that modern physiology has demonstrated that, in the act of generation, the female contribution is as active as the male.
It is nonetheless undeniable that the woman is the one who receives and that it is the man who gives. Conclusion: receiving, consenting, accepting, letting happen can be an attitude no less active and creative than that of giving, fashioning, imposing. And if in the Incarnation the part of man is taken by God, who is essentially the Giver, indeed the Imposer, the part of woman, who as a creature accepts the divine gift, is far from being passive. Let us say rather that this assent is the highest and most fruitful of human activities—in Pauline terms, faith is required more fundamentally than works. (23)
Woman is the classic creature. It is supremely fitting, therefore, that a woman on her own, a virgin in fact, should have represented creation in consenting to the Incarnation. For the Yes asked of her is ein geschehenlassendes Ja, a fiat, a letting-it-be-done-in-her according to God’s will. Men are men, but at that great moment Man was a woman. (24)
Incarnation, Cross, and Immaculate Conception
On the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception the Church reads the Annunciation gospel. The collect of the day explains why: by preserving the Blessed Virgin from all stain of original sin, God the Father is preparing a “worthy dwelling-place” for his Son. Through the grace that fills her from the first moment of her existence, Our Lady is enabled, at the Annunciation, to welcome God’s Son into her womb with a faith that is boundless and uncalculating, “infinitely at the disposal of the Infinite.” (25)
Someone affected by original sin “could not realize such an ingenuous openness.” (26) So, through what Catholic theology calls the “pre-redemption” of his Mother, God the Son has “so arranged it that her assent should be immaculate, unweakened in childlike trust.” (27)
Mary Immaculate personifies the Catholic “both/and,” according to which God and his creatures, in dependence on God, cooperate in nature and grace. Her fiat is God’s achievement in her, the flowering of the grace which has filled her soul from her conception, but it is also truly hers—fully hers because firstly his.
Coming from God, this Yes is the highest grace; but coming from man, it is also the highest achievement made possible by grace: unconditional, definitive self-surrender.(28)
Grace makes possible self-surrender, and engraced self-surrender makes possible cooperation. Through pre-redemptive grace, Mary’s assent is “disencumbered from the beginning… so that the earthly finite… offers no obstacle to the indwelling of God.” (29) No sinful self obtrudes. By grace she is transparent to grace, and so, as Hopkins puts it, lets “all God’s glory through.” (30)
In assenting, she renounces herself, makes herself nothing, in order to let God alone become active in her. She makes all the potentialities which constitute her nature accessible to his action, without her being able or wishing to overlook anything. She resolves to let God alone work; and yet, precisely by virtue of this resolution, she becomes cooperative… In renouncing all her potentialities, she obtains their fulfillment beyond all expectation: cooperative in body, she becomes the Mother of the Lord; cooperative in spirit, she becomes his Handmaid and his Bride. (31)
A wonderful circle of grace joins the Immaculate Conception of the Mother with the Incarnation and Cross of the Son. In time, the Immaculate Conception comes first, but it is made possible by the great events to which it is the prelude. Its final cause is Mary’s divine motherhood (she is immaculately conceived in order to prepare her to be Mother of God), and its meritorious cause is the Sacrifice on Calvary (it is by the power of Christ’s redeeming death that Mary is preserved from all stain of original sin). This suggests a further bond between the obedience of Mary and the obedience of Jesus. The Yes of Mary makes possible the Yes of Jesus (for without her he would not have a human nature and thus a human will with which to obey the Father), but it is also true that the Yes of Jesus makes possible the Yes of Mary (for it is by the grace of his Cross that Mary’s faith is immaculate and unbounded). The Mother’s obedience is an anticipated participation in the obedience of the Son. (32) Her freely given assent to the Incarnation is prepared for in advance by the “retroactive” application of the merits of Christ. Through the work of the Holy Spirit, Mary’s Yes is “enclosed in the Son’s Yes to the Father and His sending into the world.” (33)
Mary’s Yes to the Disconcerting Ministry of her Son
It is essential to this infinite flexibility of Marian consent that time and again it is led over and beyond its own understanding and has to assent to things which generally seem not to lie within the limits of the humanly possible, conceivable, tolerable, suitable… More and more is demanded of Mary’s understanding, and in this her readiness is extended to be more and more limitless and unresisting. This shows Mary absolutely to be the believer whom the Lord counts blessed (cf. Luke 1:45; 11:28; John 20:29). (34)
Mary’s “infinite flexibility” shows itself in her courageous readiness to go into the unknown, giving herself up more and more to what she does not fully understand. Here she is truly the model for our faith: not fully comprehending, yet believing and saying Yes.
Mary is infinitely at the disposal of the Infinite. She is absolutely ready for everything, for a great deal more, therefore, than she can know, imagine or begin to suspect. (35)
For example, St. Luke tells us that when Our Lady and St. Joseph find the boy Jesus in the Temple, they do not understand his words about having to be in the Father’s house (cf. 2:50). And yet the very next verse says that “his Mother kept all these things in her heart” (v.51). She treasures by the prayer of faith what she cannot exhaustively understand. She knows that her Son, in his origin and his destiny, is unique, but she does not try to resolve the enigma of his life. Her pondering is contemplation not calculation. She looks with eyes of love on her mysterious Son, but she does not insist on knowing everything in advance. And in this way she conforms herself to him.
Jesus does not anticipate in his mind the destiny that is come; he just lets himself be guided, day by day, by the Father. His Mother likewise does not anticipate anything of what is to come. One of the features of her faith (which is the fulfillment of Abraham’s) is constantly to accept only what God decrees. (36)
Mary is called to follow Jesus into the dark: “the night of the senses and of the spirit, faith reduced to utter nakedness.” Balthasar here is close in spirit to the tender yet down-to-earth Mariology of St. Therese, who, in the very last poem she wrote (Why I love you, O Mary), shows Our Lady living out her immaculate all-holiness, not in luminous raptures, but in the dark and humble way of faith. Pope John Paul, too, in Redemptoris Mater, has spoken of Mary’s faith, for the love of Jesus, entering the night. (37)
In the gospels, after Bethlehem, whenever the Son meets his Mother, he appears to distance himself from her: at the age of twelve, he leaves her, without explanation, to spend three days in his Father’s house (Lk. 2:41-51); at Cana, he says, “O woman, what have you to do with me?” (Jn. 2:4); on one occasion, in the middle of his public ministry, she is left standing at the door and hears him asking: “Who is my mother, and who are my brethren?… Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Matt. 12:46-50); when a woman acclaims the womb that bore him, Jesus immediately replies: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it” (Lk. 11:27-28); finally, at the Cross, he gives her a new son, a disciple in place of the Master, a mere man in place of true God (cf. Jn. 19:26).
Balthasar describes these episodes as “turnings away” (Zurückweisungen) of the Mother by the Son. (38) Far from placing any kind of question mark by the Church’s devotion to the Mother of God, they furnish it with a most powerful support. Take, for example, the two occasions where the Lord appears to be pointing beyond the merely physical fact of motherhood: “Whoever does the will of my Father… is my Mother”; “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.” Here Jesus opens up to us the immaculate heart of Mary. He shows us that motherhood is not just biological: Mary is his Mother in the whole of her person, in soul as well as body, by her faith as well as in her flesh. Then again, if Jesus removes himself from her, it is not out of cruelty. On the contrary, he is inviting her to join him, even more closely, in his mission of love. He is abandoning her as he will be abandoned by the Father on the Cross. And in both cases, the abandonment, paradoxically, reveals the perfect loving union of Abandoner and Abandoned. (39)
This form of union was necessary so that Mary—who henceforth will form the center of the Church—may know by experience the mystery of Redemption and can transmit it to her new children. Specifically Christian humility cannot be learnt except by formal and repeated humiliations. Just as Christ humbled himself as far as the Cross so he could exercise the mission of the Father, so he humbles his Mother and confers her ecclesial mission by a final humiliation. (40)
By these mysterious distancings, Jesus transforms his Mother’s Yes from being the perfect faith of Israel to being the crucified faith of the Church, a faith which does more than “hope against hope,” as Abraham did, but collaborates with the Redeemer by going into dark Godforsakenness with him. Just as Mary once initiated the child Jesus into the tradition of his people, so now he teaches her the demands of his mission and of his Church’s share in it.
The “Yes” of the Handmaid remains the interior form of all the events that follow, however unexpected or shocking. This imperturbable Yes, which she gives through all the nights and incomprehensions, is the basis of what can be called collaboration, Marian and ecclesial coredemption. (41)
In her night, Mary’s faith is enlarged, becomes truly Catholic. When Jesus says, in her hearing, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is… my mother,” He is “asking her to give up her maternal prerogative for the sake of universality.” (42) He is inviting Mary to let the Church participate in her motherhood of faith and obedience. The God-Man wants us to conceive him by faith and give birth to him in charity, to mother him into our lives by obedience to his Father. In making room for others in her motherly faith, Mary shows herself to be the concrete embodiment of what and who the Church is: the faith of the Church is quite simply a continuation of Mary’s, the one who first believed. In this readiness to let all the faithful believe with and in her, Our Lady is the very personification of Catholicity. She is the primal believer, our motherly forerunner in faith, in a sense the very path of faith we tread in following Jesus.
Mary’s fiat… is a nuptial womb… where the Son of God can not only take existence but also found a truly universal Church. (43)
This relation between Mary and the Church is not one of merely exterior resemblance. Balthasar is not just saying that what Our Lady once did for Christ, the Church now does for his members, or for him in his members. No, Our Lady actually cooperates in the birth and growth of the Church’s sons and daughters. It is through the Queen of Heaven’s motherly love and prayers that the Church on earth fulfils her motherly role. Mary mothers the Church into mothering.
Mary’s Yes to the Cross
Like her consent to the Incarnation, Mary’s faithful Yes to her Son’s Sacrifice on the Cross is feminine, at one and the same time virginal, motherly, bridal, representative. It is a fiat, a “letting it be done” of womanly and handmaidenly humility, which accepts its distance from the male and priestly self-oblation of the God-Man.
This is the only way the New Eve can be the helpmate of the New Adam. He bears the guilt of all mankind before the Father… He makes room for the very different contribution of his Mother. What she has to do is painfully to let his suffering happen, by her own suffering, letting his suffering happen in her. Mary’s fiat beneath the Cross is the archetypal fiat for all faith in the Church, not least in the Eucharist… (44)
In the Holy Spirit, who has filled her from her conception, and who overshadowed her at the Incarnation, Mary on Calvary gives the Son back to the Father, or rather she lets the Son return to the Father. And in that gesture she is the model for the faith of the Church and the individual Christian.
The more seriously Christians take this letting-it-happen-in-me for themselves and their whole life of following Jesus, the more Marian is their baptismal faith. Because of that they are also linked with Mary’s gesture of giving back her Son, from the beginning as far as the Cross, to the Father in the Holy Spirit. The Son has to do all the work that the Father wants him to do, and so into that work he fits Mary and all mankind. (45)
In the Patristic eyes of Balthasar, the Lady who stands by the Cross is indistinguishably both Mary and the Church. When, like Vatican II, he says that Mary is the Church’s “type” or “model,” he means much more than that she is a poetic symbol of the Church. In an important sense, she is the Church, a Realsymbol, as the Germans say, a symbol which contains the very thing it symbolizes. Precisely as the historical person she is, the Blessed Virgin is the Church’s embodiment and personification, the “concrete universal (universale concretum) of the Church as Jesus is of divine sonship.” (46) By her virginal mothering of Christ, she is the first person to live in the bodily, believing relationship to him to which his whole Church is predestined. At the foot of the Cross Mary personifies the Church as described by St Paul: “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing… holy and without blemish” (cf. Eph. 5:27). Through the sanctifying grace of her Son, received at the first moment of her conception, she is “the only member of the real pilgrim Church to correspond fully to the ecclesial attribute ‘immaculate.'” (47) Now, as we have seen, Mary is immaculate through the anticipated merits of Christ. At the foot of the Cross she stands as already redeemed through the Cross. In other words, as Adrienne points out, “pre-redemption” makes “co-redemption” possible. It is only by the grace of the Redeemer, given her from her beginning, that she can cooperate with him. “She is not pre-redeemed through co-redemption, but through pre-redemption she becomes Co-Redemptrix.” (48) Our Lady does not in any sense redeem herself, nor on Calvary does she merit the grace to be pre-redeemed. No, through her Son’s grace, bestowed in advance, she is empowered to say Yes, in a humble and handmaidenly way, to the Sacrifice from which all grace flows.
It is on Calvary that the bridal aspect of Mary’s faith becomes most evident. “Mary begins by being the Mother, but at the Cross she finishes by becoming Bride, the quintessence of the Church.” (49) She somehow embodies the Church as the cherished spouse for whom Christ gives himself up on the Cross (cf. Eph. 5:25f.). Balthasar treats this idea of Mary as “Bride of the Word” (Sponsa Verbi) with immense reverence and delicacy. It is Mary’s spiritual consent to the Sacrifice that is analogically bridal. She is Bride as the representative, the living summation, of the humankind for whom Jesus lays down his life. She is Bride as New Eve, helpmate of the New Adam. On the Cross the Head and Bridegroom gives himself up Eucharistically for love of the Church, and the Church in Mary accepts the gift. Jesus does not want the Church’s faith to be given simply post factum. He wants a “simultaneous, instantaneous consent, so that his Sacrifice might be truly total: inseparably, the Sacrifice of the Head and the members.” (50) Even in the utter loneliness and dereliction of Calvary, forsaken by his Father, deserted by all but one of his disciples, Jesus does not want “to act alone, without the accompaniment of his Church.” (51)
Mary and John
On Golgotha, Mary is both Church and Mother of the Church. Together with St John she is the “first cell of the community founded by the Crucified Son.” (52) But then, by his last will and testament, she becomes Mother of John and in him of all Christians, Mother of the Church. (53)
To appreciate fully what the relationship of Mary and John signifies for Balthasar, we must consider once more his concept of “the Christological Constellation.” The eternal Son of the Father became a man of a particular time and place, and so entered into concrete historical relationships, a whole “constellation” of kinship and friendship. His central place is secure, but he shines inseparably from other stars.
It is impossible to detach Jesus from the human group which forms a totality with him, even though this statement does not take away anything from his sovereign position. As soon as one abstracts him (and the doctrine about him, Christology) from it, he becomes a desperately abstract figure, even if the Trinitarian context is still there. (54)
In the middle of the Christological Constellation, immediately round Jesus himself, are his Blessed Mother and his apostles, pre-eminently Peter, the rock on which he builds his Church, and John, the disciple whom he specially loves, the evangelist who is his “most profound expositor,” the virgin custodian of his Virgin Mother. (55) “These figures belong… to the constellation of Jesus and are consequently integral parts of Christology.” (56) They are also, argues Balthasar, intrinsic to ecclesiology. For the Lord has made them “types,” “real symbols,” of his Church, “mediatory figures” by which “the ‘form of Christ’ (Gal. 4:19) is imprinted upon the whole People of God.” (57)
This typological ecclesiology is thought out with philosophical and sacramental realism. In Christ the universal is concrete and personal, the particular given general scope. Through the animating operation of the Holy Spirit the incarnate Son’s historical, human relations are perpetuated in his Mystical Body as complementary dimensions of her being and function. Mary, the Virgin Theotokos, by her faith and loving accord, is the perfect personal realization of the Ecclesia Immaculata; Peter, who speaks and acts in his successors, the Roman Pontiffs, represents the male, office-bearing part of the Church; and John, apostle-priest of Jesus yet adoptive son of Mary, is the link between the two.
For Balthasar, Our Lord’s words from the Cross to Mary and John “in a way constitute the Church’s foundation document.” (58) By bequeathing her to John, Jesus unites the heavenly Church, perfected in advance, with the still struggling, earthly Church. In other words, the visibly organized pilgrim Church on earth, in all its imperfection, has been entrusted by its Head to care for and protect “the purity and sanctity of the original—the ideal—Church.” (59) John’s mission is to be the link between Mary and Peter and thus between the Church as holy and immaculate, and the Church as hierarchical and infallible, between the whole Church, which, even as distinct from Christ, is greater than its members and surrounds them as a motherly presence, and that sacramentally consecrated portion, which is masculine and fatherly, the office of unity in the truth. (60) John represents the official side of the Church, but in a special form—as uniting office and love. (61) On Calvary John is the vicar of the absent Peter; he undertakes, in lieu of the primate, to cherish and guard Holy Mother Mary and thus Holy Mother Church, the Church as a whole, the Church as holy. (62) John is the one whom Jesus specially loves, and yet it is of Peter that the “greater love” is asked (cf. John 21:15). The Rock, fragile in himself, yet in Christ indestructible, loves much because he has been forgiven much. He can strengthen his brethren, because he has himself been strengthened. Jesus leads him, through his tears, to a John-like love, “so that in him the unity Christ established between office and love can survive unto death (21:19).” (63)
The figures of Mary and John at the Cross have something to teach every Christian, but they have a special significance for those who follow Jesus in the way of the evangelical counsels, by poverty, celibacy, and obedience.
The Mary-John community, established in the Petrine Church, has its origin in the Cross, emanates from it and always returns to it. It is in the obedience of the Cross and in the poverty of the Cross that it is entered. It is also a virginal community. This threefold renunciation lives henceforth in the heart of the Church as her secretly life-giving nucleus, healing the wounds of Church and world by leading them back to the source of all salvation and healing. (64)
For the members of the secular institute founded by Balthasar and Adrienne, the Community of St John, Mary, John, and Peter define their life. The model for the priest is John in his closeness to the Lord’s Eucharistic Sacrifice of his life; for the layman engaged in a secular profession, it is John’s vocation to “remain” in the world (cf. John 21:11f.); for the laywoman, it is Mary in her virginal openness to God. All three branches abide gratefully in one fold under Peter’s successor.
Balthasar’s “constellational ecclesiology” sheds light on many of the most difficult questions in the Church today. For example, it places the necessary maleness of the ministerial priesthood in its proper perspective. Apostles like Peter and John, followed by those who share their ministry as bishops and priests, act in the person of Christ, but they most certainly are not Christ. Peter would rather be crucified upside down than be confused with the Master. By the grace of ordination, these weak and sometimes foolish males are simply icons, sacramental signs and instruments, of Christ the Bridegroom-Priest. His are the words they speak in consecrating, his the forgiveness when they absolve. For the sake of their brethren, the office-bearers represent, as a portrait represents its subject, the Son of God made man and male. The Blessed Virgin is and does something far greater. She is not a priest as the apostles are, for she does not portray someone else. She just is the Mother of God, the one who in faith and love gave flesh and blood to God the Son, and she is the Church, Holy Church’s personal embodiment as immaculate Bride. The Church as a whole is feminine, open to receive the life and truth of her Head; the male hierarchy, by contrast, is only one part, with the humble vocation to serve the feminine Marian whole. The Church, Balthasar insists, existed in a woman before a single man had been called to be an apostle: “In Mary the Church already has physical existence before it is organized in Peter.” (65) Mary, not Peter or John, is “first Church.” It was she who first believed and so made possible, on the human level, the mystery of the Incarnation. On Easter Day—at least as far as Ignatius, Adrienne, and Balthasar are concerned—Our Lady was the first to see the Son in the glory of his risen body. (66)
And it is she who, when her earthly course was finished, was the first human person to share fully in that glory in body as well as soul, brilliant sign of hope for her pilgrim children. Our Lady is primate in a way that no prelate could ever be.
Being laid in the hands of Mary at his birth and after his death is more central than being laid in the hands of office, and the presupposition of the latter. Before male office makes its appearance in the Church, the Church as woman and helpmate is on the scene . . . The Marian takes precedence over the liturgical, because the incarnate Word was first entrusted to the care of His Mother at his Incarnation and birth before being later placed in the care of the Church in the official and institutional sense. (67)
The center of the Church is not a clergyman, but a lay woman, Our Blessed Lady. Not all of us are called to be priest or bishop or Pope, but every Christian is meant to be like Mary in her faith and to know and love her as Mother.
This femininity of the Church is all-embracing, whereas the official service-role performed by the apostles and their male successors is merely a function within this all-embracing dimension. (68)
The classical Byzantine icon of Pentecost shows this beautifully. Peter is there with his keys, so is John, but the praying heart of the apostolic Church is Mary.
The Mass and the Mysteries of March
Holy Mass is an anamnesis of Our Lord’s whole temporal history—of his Death and Resurrection, above all, but also, in an important sense, of his Incarnation. (69) Even on Holy Thursday evening, as the priest carries the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, the Church does not forget Lady Day or Christmas Day.
Nobis datus, nobis natus
Ex intacta Virgine…
Given for us, for us descending
Of a Virgin to proceed…
The body received in Holy Communion is none other than the “true body born of the Virgin Mary” (Ave verum Corpus natum de Maria virgine), the body in which the Son was crucified (vere passum, immolatum in cruce pro homine), the body in which he gloriously arose, the body in which he will come again on the Last Day. Adrienne von Speyr was haunted by the Eucharist’s debt to the Incarnation and so to the Mother of God.
Whenever he now gives men his Body, his flesh and blood, in the Eucharist, it is the Body conceived and carried, formed and nourished, by his Mother, which she conceived by the Holy Spirit, enabling (the Son) to become man . . . It is impossible for this unity in the flesh between Mother and Son ever to be broken. The Eucharist does not do away with it. That is why it is always the commemoration of the Mother’s consent and of her bearing of the Son, because traces of her are always in his flesh. (70)
Early in 1942, Balthasar noted how, whenever Adrienne went into a church, she first of all instinctively greeted the Mother of God. “Even in the altar she sees and feels the Mother.” (71) Moreover, she believed that Our Lady’s disposition at the Annunciation is the model for every communicant at the altar. No one knows better than the Virgin Mother how to receive the Son. For at the Incarnation she welcomed him into her heart and into her womb with faith and love beyond compare. And now, every time we receive Jesus in Holy Communion, his Mother and ours stands nearby to help us, to bring to completeness what we do so brokenly. Balthasar made this idea his own. I can think of no theology that more decisively exorcizes Jansenist guilt about unworthy reception.
We do not know whether Mary ever communicated at a celebration of the Eucharist. But she knows better than any saint or sinner what it means perfectly to receive the Son into oneself. She stands, as it were, behind every Holy Communion, as the Ecclesia Immaculata, bringing to perfection what we accomplish imperfectly. (72)
Balthasar and Adrienne also detect a Eucharistic typology in the second of the joyful mysteries, Mary’s journey into Judea, with Jesus in her womb.
This attitude of letting himself be born and driven will be perfected in the Eucharist: here the Son will hand himself over to both the holy and the unholy spirit of the Church in order to stand at the disposal of men who are not ready to let themselves be determined by his grace, by his attitude of obedience. Now as a child, later on as a man, and finally as a Host, the Son will let himself be borne about as a thing that one can dispose of—and this is he who bears the sin of the world and, therefore, the world itself. (73)
One and the same Word incarnate, one and the same love that lets itself be carried: in the womb by gentleness, to the Cross by violence, in the Host by the good and the not so good.
The Mass and the Last Supper
The Mass is itself one of the Mysteries of March, a gift from the Lord on the first Holy Thursday. According to Balthasar, the Last Supper is an anticipation of the Cross. (74) Before he is passively handed over to his violent death, Jesus actively hands himself as food to his disciples, his flesh as “given,” his blood as “shed.” He disposes, in advance of his being-disposed-of in the Passion.
The Son thanks the Father (eucharistein, eulogein) for allowing him to be disposed of in such a way that from it there flows both the highest revelation of divine love (its glorification) and the salvation of men. (75)
Behind the human and historical passivity and activity of the Cross and its anticipation in the Supper, somehow disclosed by it, is a divine and eternal giving and readiness to be given. For the One who, as man, “immortal food supplying, gives himself with his own hand” is the consubstantial Son given, out of love for the world, by God the Father (cf. John 3:16). (76)
The Last Supper is not a mere symbol, a kind of acted parable to show the spirit in which Jesus is to suffer. It is an act of the Verbum caro, in which flesh-blood and spirit-life (cf. John 6:52-57, 63) coincide. The washing of feet may be symbol, but the Supper is real sacramental anticipation.
The interior attitude (symbolized by the washing of feet) finally becomes actuality in the self-distribution which anticipates and inaugurates the Passion. (77)
The Mass and the Cross
According to the teaching of the Council of Trent, in the Eucharist Christ’s bloody Sacrifice on Calvary is made really present (repraesentaretur) and offered, in an unbloody way, through the ministry of priests. (78) Christ is the principal offerer and offering: (79) as St Augustine says, Ipse offerens, ipse et oblatio. (80) And the Church, Christ’s beloved Bride, is co-offerer. On the night he was betrayed, the Bridegroom bequeathed his Sacrifice for her to offer, through her priests, under visible signs. (81) The Sacrifice is one and the same; only the manner of offering is different.
The first thing Balthasar wants to say about the Church’s Eucharistic offering of Christ’s Sacrifice is that it is a grace.
Jesus hands over his Sacrifice at the Last Supper to his disciples in order that they may perform it in imitation… He himself passes from his active life to the passivity of suffering, of being overtaxed, in which one can no longer be active oneself but must suffer whatever happens. And thus he can hand over to his disciples the active aspect of his readiness for God: he gives his Sacrifice to them so that they may have something to offer to God… Yes, (the Mass) is a Sacrifice: it is Christ’s Sacrifice which he places into the hands of the Church so that she in turn has something to offer to the Father: the only thing of value, the Sacrifice of Christ. (82)
Even as actively offering, the Church as a whole is bridal in the sense that the Sacrifice is a gift femininely received from the Bridegroom. On the Cross Christ offered himself in sacrifice to the Father for us. In the Eucharist the Church, his Body and Bride, consents to and ratifies that oblation, “(wills) the death in an ecclesial and feminine way.” (83) The model for this Eucharistic attitude of the Church, indeed its highest and holiest realization, is Mary’s Yes at the foot of the Cross. From this Balthasar argues that Mariology can make an invaluable contribution to Eucharistic theology.
I believe that the expression “the Sacrifice of the Mass” will remain obscure unless we have met the woman who stands in the shadow of the Cross, who is both the Mother of the Crucified and the icon of the Church. She is present when the Son gives himself; she cannot intervene. But she is far from being passive. A superhuman action is demanded of her: to consent to the sacrifice of this man who is the Son of God, but also her own. She would prefer a thousand times over to be tortured in his place. But that is not what is required of her. She has only to consent. Actively, she has to let herself be dispossessed. She has to repeat her initial Yes to the very end, but this end was included virtually in the first élan. This acquiescing of the Mother is the original form, reserved to the pure creature, of participation in the sacrifice of Christ. (84)
The Eucharistic action of the Church as a whole is “a Marian letting oneself be taken into Jesus’ availability to the Father’s will,” (85) The active indicative offerimus is made possible by the petitionary subjunctive fiat.
Mary on Calvary is not a priestess; René Laurentin proved long ago that that idea had no foundation in Scripture or Tradition. (86) As we saw earlier, the mission of the Mother of God is immeasurably greater than that of any apostle or cleric. Our Lady’s role is to I say a “Yes that lets it happen” (ein geschehenlassendes Ja), that peculiarly feminine word of assent, apparently passive yet the most fruitful act of which any human person is capable. She is not a mediator like him but under, in and through him. On the Cross, the divine person of the Bridegroom-Priest, as man and male, offers himself to the Father in atonement for the whole world’s sin. The human person of the Virgin Mother, as woman and embodiment of the Church immaculate, humbly lets herself be counted among sinful humanity, while at the same time giving the consent of which it is incapable. (87) Applying this to the Eucharist, we can see that Mary is the model, not of the celebrating priesthood, but of the whole worshiping Church, a real symbol of the common, not the ministerial, priesthood. (88) Ministerial priests, the Johns and Peters, are simply the sacramental signs and instruments of the chief Offerer, the Eternal High Priest. They are the male hands through which the female Body unbloodily offers the bloody Sacrifice of the Head. In the first place, as the Church has always taught, they represent Christ as an icon represents its subject, as an actor represents a character. They act in his person. This is an awesome but ultimately humiliating mission, for they are shown up by the part they play. Mary’s immaculate Yes, by contrast, is not representative in the iconic or mimetic sense. In her there is no gap between actor and part, only a perfect coincidence of objective and subjective holiness.
Once again we must remember that the Marian takes precedence over the liturgical, because the incarnate Word was first entrusted to the care of his Mother in his Incarnation and Nativity before being later placed in the care of the Church in the official and institutional sense. (89)
Only in the light of the Virgin Theotokos can we understand why the necessary maleness of the ministerial priesthood does not in any way imply the inferiority of woman. True, the highest elevation of human nature (in the divine Word) took place in the male sex, but the supreme exaltation of the human person took place in the female (in Mary, the Mother of God). (90) The impossibility of women’s ordination derives from the incomparable dignity of woman in the sexual order of creation and in the supernatural order of redemption and the Church. “The woman who would strive for the male role in the Church thus strives for something ‘less’ and denies the ‘more’ which she is.” (91)
The Mass and the Trinity
The Eucharist has its presupposition in the Trinity. In the inner life of the Godhead, the divine essence which the Son eternally receives from the Father he offers back to him in gratitude, in love, in the Holy Spirit. (92) The Son is thanksgiving in his very person, “the Father’s substantial Eucharist.” (93) Of course, since Jesus is true man as well as true God, he is not Eucharist in this Trinitarian sense alone. His eternal thankful return of his divinity to the Father is incarnated in the surrender of his human body and soul, in the Holy Spirit, to the Father. As God from eternity, and as man from the Virgin’s womb, the Son’s love is grateful and self-giving. In his divinity, with regard to the generating Father, he is Eucharist in the sense of eternal gratitude. In his humanity, with regard to his brethren, he is Eucharist in the sense of a love that wants to distribute itself, a body ready to be broken, blood to be poured out, a heart to be wounded. And the two movements are one. In offering his body for us, in giving his body to us, the thankful Son fulfils his Father’s will that we be drawn into the life of the Blessed Trinity. “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (John 6:57).
It is important to realize that Jesus’ grateful self-oblation as man is not just spiritual. He gives his human All to the Father for us, his material body as well as his spiritual soul. He pours out his life-blood, his whole living substance (cf. John 10:17ff.). (94) Bearing the crushing burden of the world’s sin, plunged into Godforsakenness, scourged, crowned with thorns, and nailed to the tree, the Son says “I thank thee, Father,” offering up his body, thereby making the supreme act of religion, the glorification of the Father, thanksgiving and sacrifice in one.
The Mass and the Resurrection
The gift which Our Lord on the Cross made of his whole self to us and his Father has never been withdrawn. In Heaven, in his glorified manhood, at the Father’s right hand, he stands for ever in the attitude of sacrifice. And on earth, until the end of the age, on the altars of the Church, under the appearances of bread and wine, he goes on, in his extravagant love, giving out his Body, pouring out his Blood.
He who was once given, slain on the Cross, poured out, pierced, will never take back his gift, his gift of himself. He will never gather into himself his Eucharistic fragmentation in order to be one with himself. Even as the risen Lord he lives as the One who has given himself and has poured himself out. (95)
This was a favorite theme of St Teresa of Avila:
The Father gave us his Son once and for all to die for us, and thus he is our own; yet he does not want the gift to be taken from us until the end of the world but would have it left to be a help to us every day. (96)
The Resurrection and Ascension, the going to the Father, are not a withdrawal of the Son-Gift. On the contrary, as the Farewell Discourse makes clear, they make possible, through the sending of the Spirit, a new intimacy and mode of presence (cf. John 16:16ff.).
Jesus’ Eucharistic gesture of self-distribution to his Apostles, and through them to the world, is a definitive, eschatological and thus irreversible gesture. The Father’s Word made flesh is definitively given and distributed by him and is never to be taken back. Neither the Resurrection from the dead nor the “Ascension” as “going to the Father” (Jn 16:18) are a countermovement to Incarnation, Passion and Eucharist. (97)
Jesus bears the marks of his Passion in his risen Body. “The Crucified, and he alone, is the Risen One.” (98) He stands for ever, in his crucified and risen humanity, as “the slain Lamb” (Rev. 5:6).
This implies much more than that he merely stands before the Father as mediator in virtue of his acquired merits; likewise more than that he merely continues in an unbloody manner the “self-giving” he accomplished in a bloody manner on earth. It ultimately means that the Father’s act of self-giving by which, throughout all created space and time, he pours out the Son is the definitive revealing of the Trinitarian act itself in which the “Persons” are God’s “relations,” forms of absolute self-giving and loving fluidity. In the Eucharist the Creator has succeeded in making the finite creaturely structure so fluid—without fragmenting or violating it (“No one takes my life from me,” Jn 10:18)—that it is able to become the bearer of the Triune life. (99)
By placing the Eucharist in the context of the Lord’s Incarnation and bodily Resurrection, Balthasar helps us understand the impossibility of the view that the Eucharist is a “bare commemoration,” a sacrifice of merely vocal praise and thanksgiving. To say Eucharist is to say Sacrifice. For Christian thanksgiving is not a verbal invocation but the Verbum incarnatum. The sacrificium laudis is a slaughtered Lamb. The supreme thanksgiving to God the Father was given by the incarnate Son when he gave his All, his body as well as his soul, to the Father on Calvary. There can be no “spiritual” thanksgiving without communion in Christ’s Sacrifice in the flesh.
We receive the grace to offer “ourselves, our souls and bodies” by first offering and then eating the Paschal Lamb. Adrienne saw this very clearly. St Paul speaks of Christians “sharing the sufferings of Christ” (cf. Phil. 3:10), by which he means that Christians, by the grace of their Head, are able to offer their sufferings, in union with his, to the Father, thereby doing something beautiful for the Church (cf. Col. 1:24). Adrienne realized that this bearing of burdens in the Communion of Saints is only possible because daily, on the altar, the Lord places his sacrificed Body and Blood in the hands of his Bride to draw her more deeply into his Cross and so into the power of the Resurrection.
The Eucharistic Body enables the Church to participate in the Cross… For me to be able to suffer for the Lord he must already live in me. If I do not accept his Sacrifice, if I do not receive his Communion, then I stand outside and cannot suffer for him. (100)
Where the Eucharist is regarded as a merely commemorative meal, Christ’s saving Passion remains locked away in history, accessible only by mental recall. The Catholic doctrine is, by contrast, that, on the altar, the Lord’s saving work is “revived in the midst of the years” (Hab. 3:2), earthed in the here and now. Unbloodily, sacramentally, Christ’s Sacrifice is daily re-presented and offered for the living and the dead, applied to Everyman’s need and weakness, so that our actual life’s journey may be—through, with and in the Son—a passage to the Father. Georges Bernanos, that great Christian novelist, of whom Balthasar wrote a long and detailed study, put down these words in his diary a short time before his death in 1948.
Just as he sacrifices himself on each altar where Mass is offered, so he begins to die again in each man at the moment of his agony. We will all that he wills, but we do not know that we will it. Sin makes us live on the surface of our lives; we only enter in ourselves to die, and there it is he awaits us. (101)
One of Balthasar’s favorite words is Hingabe, a richly suggestive term, connoting surrender, devotion, sacrifice, giving up, giving away. It is the fundamental act of the Son, as God and as man. Everything in Christianity is for giving away; keeping means certain loss (cf. Luke 9:24). This is how God lives as Trinity. This is how the Son made man lived and died on earth and lives on for ever in the Eucharist. And this is how, through his given-out Body and poured-out Blood, we are to live in the Church, in the Communion of Saints.
Fr. John Saward, former Professor of Theology at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia, and at the International Theological Institute in Gaming, Austria, was recently ordained a priest and is exercising his priestly ministry in England. This article was excerpted from The Mysteries of March: Hans Urs von Balthasar on the Incarnation and Easter, Collins, 1990.
(1) Hans Urs von Balthasar, Der antirömische Affekt: Wie lässt sich das Papsttum in der Gesamtkirche integrieren, Freiburg, 1974, p. 116.
(2) Adrienne von Speyr Erde und Himmel: Ein Tagebuch, Einsiedeln, 1975-1976, vol. 1, 271. On the interrelation of Trinitarian doctrine, Christology, and Mariology, see von Balthasar, Elucidations , English translation, London, 1975, p. 66.
(3) Der antirömische Affekt: Wie lässt sich das Papsttum in der Gesamtkirche integrieren p. 115.
(4) Von Balthasar, Au Coeur du mystère rédempteur, Paris, 1980p. 54.
(5) Elucidations 72.
(6) Der antirömische Affekt: Wie lässt sich das Papsttum in der Gesamtkirche integrieren p. 164.
(7) Second Vatican Council, Lumen Gentium 56.
(8) St Augustine, Sermo 215, 4; PL 38.1074; St Leo the Great, In Nativitate Domini 1, 1; SC 22B, p. 68. Cf. John Paul II, Redemptoris Mater, 13. 9; Au Coeur du mystère rédempteur pp. 55f.
(9) Au Coeur du mystère rédempteur p. 55f.
(10) Von Balthasar, Theodramatik, Die Personen des Spiels, part 2: Die Personen in Christus, Einsiedeln, 1978, p. 273.
(11) For example, Julian of Norwich refers to Our Lord’s “courtayse love” (A Book of Showings to the Anchoress Julian of Norwich, ed. E. Colledge and J. Walsh, part 1 (Toronto, 1978), p. 211).
(12) Lumen Gentium 56.
(13) Von Balthasar, First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr, English translation, San Francisco, 1981p. 51.
(14) Von Speyr, The World of Prayer, San Francisco, 1985, pp. 97-125; Von Balthasar, Christlich meditieren, Freiburg, 1984, pp. 53-66.
(15) “Mary’s being towards her Child (Das Hin-Sein Marias zum Kind) is essentially prayer” (Christlich meditieren p. 60).
(16) Von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Edinburgh, (3 vols. 1982-1986) 1, p. 564.
(17) Von Balthasar, with Joseph Ratzinger, Marie, première Église, French Translation, Paris, 1981, p. 8.
(18) Theodramatik, vol. 3, pp. 329f.
(19) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 3a 30,1; cf. C. Feckes (ed.), Die heilsgeschichtliche Stellvertretung der Menschheit durch Maria (Paderborn, 1954), passim.
(20) Von Balthasar, Sponsa Verbi: Skizzen zur Theologie II, Einsiedeln, 1960, 171.
(21) Theodramatik, Die Personen des Spiels, part 2: Die Personen in Christus, Einsiedeln, 1978, pp. 261f.
(22) Theodramatik, Die Personen des Spiels, part 2: Die Personen in Christus, Einsiedeln, 1978, p. 264. Again developing an insight of Adrienne’s, Balthasar acknowledges that there is a certain analogical femininity about the Son’s relation to the Father, his eternal receiving of the divine essence from the Father. Since the eternal, uncreated Son is the archetype of all that is created in time, he is archetypal of both masculine and feminine—of the feminine by his passive receptivity towards the Father, of the masculine by his active gratitude for what he receives. However, when he becomes man, he becomes male, “because, as the One sent by the Father, he represents the Father’s authority within creation. With regard to creation and the Church, he is under no circumstances primarily the receiver but the producer (der Hervorbringende)” (“Die Wiirde der Frau,” (Homo Creatus Est. Skizzen zur Theologie V (Einsiedeln, 1986), p. 140)). Neither Father nor Son can be anything other than analogically male with regard to the creature. For Adrienne’s insights, see Erde und Himmel: Ein Tagebuch 3, 2039 and 2255.
(23) Au Coeur du mystère rédempteur p. 58.
(24) See M. Hauke, Women in the Priesthood. A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption (San Francisco, 1988), pp. 304f.