It has been predicted in theological circles that the Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988) will emerge as the most important theologian of the twentieth century (1). A striking characteristic of Balthasar’s massive output is its contemplative orientation which he himself has described as “theology on one’s knees” (2). Indeed, his own theological vocation was perceived and understood in prayer, in a precise moment of grace during a retreat in the Black Forest near Basle; a grace which he would later recount with precision (3).
The receptive prayerful attitude that one perceives in von Balthasar’s work can be best understood by means of the Marian fiat indicating that theology begins in the response of the creature to God’s self-manifestation. According to von Balthasar, Mary made to God, through the gift of grace, the perfect nuptial response of faith, and thus the Marian fiat has become the archetype, principle and exemplar of the faith response of the entire Church (4). This article, therefore, will attempt to present a limited summary of von Balthasar’s Marian theology developed around the leitmotiv of the nuptial fiat, which explicitly or implicitly, penetrates his entire theological corpus.
Since von Balthasar, in the tradition of the early Fathers, sees Mary as the archetypal image of the Church, it follows that his conception of the Church is Marian, feminine, and bridal. He sees the Church as person, as body, as structure, and ultimately, as bride. First and foremost, of course, the Church is Christ; but when considered as Head and body, the Church is also a response to Christ, that is, a bridal self-surrender to Christ in faith. It is by means of the Church’s response in faith, her personal fiat to the Divine Word, that the Church bears in her own flesh and spirit the fruit of Christ.
Although she is made up of many subjects, the Church is not a mere collectivity of persons: a sociological reality. Her many members participate through infused grace in a single normative subject and its consciousness. Her inchoateness is fulfilled in the mystery of the Holy Spirit within her inmost ground, who alone can constitute her as subject and bride (5). By means of her sacramental structure, Christ’s most intimate divine life is communicated to the real persons who form the Church in a bond of love like unto marriage. For von Balthasar this reality of Church that revelation calls the bride of Christ is a mystery of faith (6).
In the third volume of his Theo-Drama: Persons in Christ, von Balthasar outlines the archetypal figure of the Virgin Mary whom he considers “the Realsymbol” of the Church (7). Drawing on the Fathers and Tradition, von Balthasar presents the Virgin of Nazareth as the individual woman who personifies and is the very epitome of the Church in her essential bridal self-surrender to God. The whole life of Mary is embodied, he says, in her fiat,the perfect consent that “allows all,” and by thus allowing God’s Word to take complete possession of her body and spirit, she “becomes womb and bride and mother of the incarnating God” (8).
According to von Balthasar, Mary’s consent is, in the first place, a virginal consent which only subsequently becomes a maternal and finally a bridal consent. Her virginal consent finds its source in the grace of the Immaculate Conception, source of her spotless virginity (9). Mary was graced with perfect finite freedom: the capability for full self-realization (10) as a being totally and exclusively turned toward the Word of God in the answering obedience of faith.
Her virginal consent becomes a maternal consent as she freely allows the divine initiative to make a new beginning in the Virgin Birth of her Son and she becomes Mother of Christ. Ultimately, the Mother of Christ becomes the Bride of Christ on Calvary wherein her free, faith-filled and now bridal consent to God’s salvific will is brought to its highest achievement. Standing beside the Cross of Jesus, Mary receives in perfect faith and love the infinite fruitfulness flowing from the open wound in Christ’s Heart. The new Eve receives the outpoured life and overflowing grace of the new Adam, intimately cooperating through her unrestricted fiat in his mission of redemptive love (11).
As Virgin, Mother, and Bride of Christ, Mary becomes Mother of the Church from the seed of spiritual fruitfulness which the immaculate Bride received from her crucified Son: his Body given and His Blood poured out. As Virgin, Bride, and Mother, she gives birth to the Church again and again throughout the ages (12).
Von Balthasar therefore, in his Marian theology, presents the Church with an archetype of her own life and love. Both Mary and the Church are fruitful precisely because of their virginal love. In the sacramental sign of the virginal birth, the Church is put in touch with the new birth of divine life of which she, like Mary, is Mother.
Mary and the Church are each transformed into the Bride of Christ through an interior participation in the Passion, receiving the spiritual fruitfulness flowing from the pierced Heart of the Crucified. Finally, in this active receptivity Mary, and then the Church, become the productive womb of all Christian grace. Through the nuptial fiat, literally immaculate only in the Church’s Marian archetype, Mary shares with the communion of saints her own archetypal experience as Virgin, Mother, and Bride of Christ (13).
According to von Balthasar, Mary’s bridal “yes” of bodily faith, which continues on in the Church as fruitful virginity, not only ha