Just two days before he was to receive the cardinal’s red hat from Pope John Paul II (an honor he declined to accept before) the Swiss theologian Father Hans Urs von Balthasar died. He was preparing to celebrate the morning Mass when the Lord called him home.
Von Balthasar was a prolific author of articles and books. He’s widely known as the kneeling theologian, the starting point from he believed theology ought to be done. With Cardinals Henri de Lubac, Walter Kasper and Joseph Ratzinger he founded the Communio journal (which is published in a numerous languages).
O Lord, we pray Thee that the soul of Thy priest. Thy servant Hans Urs von Balthassar, which, while he abode in this world, Thou didst adorn with sacred gifts, may ever rejoice in a glorious place in heaven. Amen.
A short biography of Father von Balthasar can be read here.
There was a day when Nietzsche was right: God was dead, the Word was not heard in the world, the body was interred and the tomb sealed up, the soul descended into the bottomless abyss of Sheol.” This descent of Jesus into the kingdom of the dead “was part of his abasement even if (as St. John admits of the Cross) this supreme abasement is already surrounded by the thunderbolts of Easter night. In fact, did not the very descent to hell bring redemption to the souls there?” It prolonged in some manner the cry from the Cross: Why have you abandoned me? “Nobody could ever shout that cry from a deeper abyss than did he whose life was to be perpetually born of the Father.”
But there remains the imitation of Christ. There is a participation, not only sacramental, but contemplative in his mystery. There is an experience of the abandonment on the Cross and the descent into hell, and experience of the poena damni. There is the crushing feeling of the “ever greater dissimilarity” of God in the resemblance, however great, between him and the creature; there is the passage through death and darkness, the stepping through “the somber door”. In conformity to the mission he has received, the prayerful man then experiences the feeling that “God is dead for him”. And this is a gift of Christian grace — but one receives it unawares. The lived and felt faith, charity, and hope rise above the soul to an inaccessible place, to God. From then on it is “in nakedness, poverty and humiliation” that the soul cries out to him.
Those who have experienced such states afterwards, more often than not, in their humility, see nothing in them but a personal purification. True to his doctrine which refuses to separate charisms and gifts of the Holy Spirit, the ecclesial mission, and individual mysticism, von Balthasar discerns in it essentially this “Holy Saturday of contemplation” by which the Betrothed, in some chosen few of her members, is made to participate more closely in the redemption wrought by the Spouse. We have arrived at a time in history when human consciousness, enlarged and deepened by Christianity, inclines more and more to this interpretation.
The somber experience of Holy Saturday is the price to be paid for the dawn of the new spring of hope, this spring which has been “canonized in the rose garden of Lisieux”: “is it not the beginning of a new creation? The magic of Holy Saturday … Deep cave from which the water of life escapes.”
Reading so many passages where this theme is taken up, we discern a distress, a solitude, a night — of the quality, in fact, as that experienced by “the Heart of the world” — and we understand that a work that communicates so full a joy must have been conceived in that sorrow.
Cardinal Henri de Lubac on the work of Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar
But what Christ did on the Cross was in no way intended to spare us death but rather to revalue death completely. In place of the “going down into the pit” of the Old Testament, it became “being in paradise tomorrow”. Instead of fearing death as the final evil and begging God for a few more years of life, as the weeping king Hezekiah does, Paul would like most of all to die immediately in order “to be with the Lord” (Phil 1:23). Together with death, life is also revalued: “If we live, we live to the Lord; if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom 14:8).
But the issue is not only life and death but our existence before God and our being judged by him. All of us were sinners before him and worthy of condemnation. But God “made the One who knew no sin to be sin, so that we might be justified through him in God’s eyes” (2 Cor 5:21).
Only God in his absolute freedom can take hold of our finite freedom from within in such a way as to give it a direction toward him, an exit to him, when it was closed in on itself. This happened in virtue of the “wonderful exchange” between Christ and us: he experiences instead of us what distance from God is, so that we may become beloved and loving children of God instead of being his “enemies” (Rom 5:10).