[04] God’s Primal Dulâ, the Heart of the Theo-dulâ

 Jesus’ mission, whose representation brings together God’s action and the world’s action in the Theo-dulâ, reaches its climax and most dramatic moment in the events of Jesus’ death, his descent into hell, and the unexpected reversal of his resurrection. This is the Johannine “hour”, the triduum mortis, the Mysterium Paschale, the central act in which the Theo-dulâ culminates. Here, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gives his best performance ever. He makes-present – or more precisely, makes-shine – on the stage of human tragic existence the splendor of God’s glory: the Primal Dulâ of the inner life of the tri-personal God. It is God’s Primal Dulâ characterized by the three divine persons’ total self-emptying and self-giving love, given freely, infinitely, and reciprocally to each other. And this drama, God’s Primal Dulâ, is the life-source, the heart, of the Theo-dulâ!

Jesus dies a “good death”. It is the culmination of a life lived in total availability and self-forgetfulness in favor of the beloved.[1] His laying down of life for the good of the world is grounded in his total self-giving to the Father, in total availability to his will. But it is also a “dramatic death”.  By assuming humanity, the Son goes as far as embracing human death and sin, even as far as taking our place and allowing the whole weight of human guilt to fall upon him.[2] A wonderful exchange! The sinless One exchanges places with sinners. Jesus Christ, by embracing sin, draws the wrath of God upon himself and is alienated from the Father, so that sinners in turn may be drawn back into God’s life.

This dramatic exchange becomes even more intense if seen against the backdrop of the ever increasing human rejection. For Christ’s act of total self-giving is not automatically accepted in gratitude. Instead of being offered back in thanksgiving, it is met with still greater human resistance.[3] Thus an ever increasing abyssal distance between God and humans is caused by the ever-intensifying human opposition. This, however, is the occasion for Christ to show the unfathomable extent of God’s love that can go that distance. In an act of perfect obedience Christ hands himself over to death on the cross. Descending into hell, he finds himself in a state of godlessness. Utterly forsaken by the Father, the Son finds himself on the other side of the abyss. God is alienated totally from God.

Then the unexpected twist takes place: the godforsaken Christ is raised to life by the Father who has forsaken him. The Spirit, who personifies the unity between the Father and the Son and guarantees that this unity will endure, prevents the abyssal distance from separating the two. The Son, in embracing human godlessness, has incorporated this very godlessness into the Trinitarian relationship of love.[4] Having been given the Son’s place in that surprising exchange and receiving the Spirit outpoured, humans can again participate in the Trinitarian life, sharing in the role-mission of Christ, guided by the Spirit-director, and embodying the Father’s self-giving love.

Commenting on Christ’s Mysterium Paschale, Nichols writes: “In this final humiliation of the forma servi, the glorious forma Dei shines forth via its lowest pitch of self-giving love.”[5] This is what the paschal mystery is about: the shining of God’s glory. Yet what is truly revealing is that the Father allowed his Son to die on the cross and descend into hell. It says something more profound about God’s nature. From the fullest extent of the tri-personal God’s ‘economic’ involvement with the world, we get a glimpse of the inner life of the Trinity.[6]

Thus in the Father who sends his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to reconcile the world to God, we get a glimpse of the Father who eternally gives himself to the Son, and thus begets the Son. In his infinite freedom and love, the Father eternally empties himself into the Son to let the Son be. Handing over all that he is, the Father gives totally his very divine essence to the Son without reserve.[7] It is the Father’s total self-emptying and self-giving love which constitutes the hypostasis or person of the Son. Yet in constituting the Son, the Father too constitutes his own hypostasis as Father and origin. It is this total self-emptying and self-giving love which constitutes both divine hypostases and reveals to us God’s true essence. But this free act of total self-giving is at the same time a risk-taking, for the Son is infinitely free to return and reciprocate this act in loving gratitude to the Father or not. The Father wills and expects this reciprocation on the part of the Son, but will not anticipate it.

Moreover, in Jesus Christ who historically lays down his life in a total act of self-surrender to the Father’s will for the salvation of the world, we get a glimpse of the eternal Son, begotten by the Father, who in eternal thanksgiving reciprocates the Father’s self-giving by his own total gift of self. It is through his total obedience and grateful return of self-giving love to the Father as origin that the Son constitutes his own hypostasis. And this return of love by the Son in God’s inner life grounds Christ’s act of laying down his life for the world in complete obedience to the Father. Christ’s act of self-emptying (kenosis) motivated by love, which ‘economically’ begins with the incarnation and continues on the cross until it finally culminates with the descent into hell, reflects the inner Trinitarian mutual kenosis of the Father and the Son who eternally and lovingly give themselves to each other, totally and without holding back.

Finally, in the Holy Spirit who is the Father’s love totally outpoured to guide Jesus in his mission and to raise him up on Easter morn, and who too is outpoured to direct the whole drama of salvation, we have a glimpse of the eternal Spirit who is the ever-dynamic relationship of love between the Father and the Son in the inner Trinitarian life. The Holy Spirit constitutes his own hypostasis by allowing himself be the vinculum amoris, the bond of love, between the Father and the Son. “The Spirit is always himself by understanding his ‘I’ as the ‘We’ of Father and Son, by being ‘expropriated’ for the sake of what is most proper to them.”[8] As the Father’s self-giving love “poured out” into the Son, and the Son’s gift of self-surrendering and grateful love “returned back” to the Father, the Holy Spirit is that divine love that both the Father and the Son “breathed” into each other totally and reciprocally.

Now this eternal and total gift of self of the divine Persons, one to another, reveals not only God’s essence as free and total self-giving love, but also the eternal and mutual inter-penetration and indwelling (perichoresis) of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit.[9] Therefore, the Father’s sending (missio) of the Son and the Spirit into the world stage is but an “economic” continuation of the begetting and breathing forth (processio) of the two by the Father as divine origin. The Trinitarian involvement with the world and human existence is but the “economic” representation on the world stage of the “immanent” involvement of the Father, Son and Spirit among themselves (perichoresis). It is a dramatic trinitarian interaction marked by the Divine Persons’ total gift of self given freely, lovingly, reciprocally, eternally, and ever-increasingly. This is the divine Primal Dulâ that shines out in the life and mission of Jesus Christ, the dramatic center of the Theo-dulâ.

[1] TD V, 84-85. Von Balthasar interprets the “beloved” of Jesus as referring to the rest of the world. With his death, Jesus “goes under” so that his “beloved,” the rest of the world, may “rise up”, i.e., be led back to God’s drama after having been alienated from it because they chose to play their own tragedy. Moreover, in a more profound sense, the “beloved” of Jesus also refers to the Father to whom and for whom Jesus, the chief actor, hands over himself (traditio) in an act of total thanksgiving, self-giving, and obedience.

[2] TD IV, 297; von Balthasar totally agrees with and cites Jean Galot, La Rédemption, mystère d’alliance (Paris-Bruges: Desclée de Brouwer, 1965), 268.

[3] “If God, who is “ever-greater”, is involved in the drama, we must be prepared, right from the outset, for a continual raising of the stakes. […] the greater his involvement is, the greater the resistance it provokes. […] while heaven’s punishments are intended to produce repentance and conversion, they actually […] provoke an even greater hardening of heart among the forces ranged against God…” TD IV, 56-58.

[4] Ibid., 232-36.

[5] Aidan Nichols, introduction to the 2nd edition of Mysterium Paschale, by von Bathasar (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), 7.

[6] “What happens in the Trinity is, however, far more than a motionless order or sequence, for expressions such as ‘beget’, ‘give birth’, ‘proceed,’ and ‘breathe forth’ refer to eternal acts in which God genuinely ‘takes place’. We must resolve to see these two apparently contradictory concepts as a unity: eternal or absolute Being – and ‘happening.’ This ‘happening’ is not a becoming in the earthly sense: it is the coming-to-be, not of something that once was not (that would be Arianism), but, evidently, of something that grounds the idea, the inner possibility, and reality of a becoming. All earthly becoming is a reflection of the eternal ‘happening’ in God, which, we repeat, is per se identical with the eternal Being or essence.” TD V, 67.

[7] “In giving himself, the Father does not give something (or even everything) that he has but all that he is – for in God there is only being, not having. So the Father’s being passes over, without remainder, to the begotten Son; it would be a mistake to suggest that he, the Father, becomes or develops as a result of this self-giving… This total self-giving, to which the Son and the Spirit respond by an equal self-giving, is a kind of ‘death’, a first, radical ‘kenosis’, as one might say. It is a kind of ‘super-death’ that is a component of all love and that forms the basis in creation for all instances of ‘the good death’. Ibid., 84.

[8] TD II, 256.

[9] Quash, “The Theo-drama,” 151.