Sunday, January 06, 2008

A (Post-)Christmas Meditation from Hans Urs von Balthasar

Christmas has already whizzed by us and we are all well on our way into the new year, 2008. However, on this Epiphany Sunday, before the season completely vanishes into our individual archives of memory, I wanted to share a very interesting and profound scriptural meditation from the great 20th century Swiss priest and theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar.

Lately I have been richly rewarded by starting off each day reading from his posthumously-collected series of scriptural reflections, You Have Words of Eternal Life. Each short reflection takes a brief phrase directly from scripture -- such as the title phrase -- and goes off from it in fascinating, and very often quite unexpected, directions. These were among the last writings he was working on just before he died, and the sense you get as you read them is of a wise old theologian/priest sharing with you the various and valuable fruits of a lifetime of thinking, praying and studying the scriptures. This experience, I am convinced, is the reason that each meditation seems to provide me with an angle on a familiar passage of scripture I had never considered before. The collection is a wonderful blessing from one of the most important and gifted theologians of our time.

I read this one only a few days ago, but then realized it would work very well as a meditation before/during the Christmas season (which, according to the Church, we are still very much in the midst of, even though the stores and homes have all packed away their decorations and lights for another year!). I thought it would be worth sharing on this blog, and as I do so, I wish everyone a blessed New Year -- one that brings with it new and exciting encounters with Jesus, our Emmanuel ("God with us").


"Are You the One Who is to Come?"

The question that a captive John the Baptist sends to Jesus by way of two of his disciples (Matt. 11:3) is the all-encompassing question of the Old Covenant directed at the New. Drawing together all of Israel's longing, John had expected the eschatological Judge who would also be Israel's Savior. He spent only a short time in Jesus' company (John 4:1-2) -- his arrest caused Jesus to return to Galilee (Mark 1:14) and made it impossible for John to keep track of Jesus' activity. But what he learned of Jesus' doings from his prison did not correspond to Israel's end-times expectations. The arrival of the messianic Kingdom seemed to require a fundamental rearrangement of this world's structures and relationships. Whether the last days could begin in the middle of history itself, without a total upheaval of that history, was the question that all of Israel asked Jesus: "Where is the promise of His coming?... Everything has remained as it was since the beginning of creation." (2 Pet 3:4)

Jesus' reply employed words borrowed from the Old Covenant itself: "the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the good news is proclaimed to the poor." (Is. 35:5; 26:19; 61:1). What Isaiah perhaps had intended as a series of joyous images for the dawn of salvation now become literal reality in Jesus' work. He not only had healed the deaf, blind, lame and lepers but also, just before John's question had arrived, had raised the boy from Naim from the dead (Luke 7:11-17). The metaphorical and eschatological had come to pass in history, including the eschatological resurrection of the dead, which was now occurring within time. All this seemed so modest, so powerless to overturn the world's structures. Yet the phrase "the good news is proclaimed to the poor" was also an Old Testament phrase (Is. 61:1), and it precisely the poor whom Jesus lists first among those who are blessed -- yet they are blessed precisely as the poor, not, as the Old Covenant normally assumed, as having been snatched out of their poverty ("he raises the weak from the dust, and the poor from the ash heap" [Ps. 113:7]). The great transformation of which the Magnificat also sings does not take place sociologically -- the "lowly maid" is not changed into a reigning queen.

The Old Covenant simply must bring its expectation into line with the decree of God that was revealed clearly enough in Isaiah 61:1-2: the Spirit of the Lord has sent the messiah to "proclaim good tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted... to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." And if "liberty" is promised "to the captives" and "redemption to those in shackles," this apparently means something beyond the sort of political development hoped for by the Baptist suffering in his prison. Social and political developments may well follow from the true eschatological event that Jesus constituted, but the order he established dare not be reversed. Had not Yahweh throughout the course of history repeatedly disappointed, indeed, deliberately crushed, his people's earthly expectations and longings?

When Jesus concludes with the warning "happy is he who takes no offense at me" (Matt. 11:6), he addresses the entire Old Covenant in his direct answer to the imprisoned John the Baptist, who needs to tear down some of his "ideological superstructures" in order to uncover the simple meaning of the divine promises. What a withdrawal process Israel has already begun: the Ark of the Covenant taken captive only to be destroyed by fire later along with the entire temple; not even one stone of the rebuilt temple is left standing upon another; the entire holy city lying in rubble. Should not Christians reflect on this object lesson and ask themselves whether the Crusades, the forcible conversion of the Saxons under Charlemagne, the cathedrals, and the Basilica of St. Peter, can be a basis for, even a mere symbol of, "proclaiming the good news to the captives"?

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