Easter: He Walked Where There Was No Path

By Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Let us translate what happened into terms of our everyday life: a friend of ours is dying. We visit him; we watch him becoming weaker and weaker; we hear his final words and exhortations, his last will and testament; we see the no longer intelligible movements of his lips; we are privileged to be present, embarrassed and weary, at this sacrament in which another person is stripped to ultimate nakedness of soul and body; we hear the long drawn-out rattle that finally subsides in a terrible gasp as the stony weight of existence collapses upon its broken carrier and buries it. We deal with the cold corpse, wash and anoint it, wrap it in cloths and bandages according to ancient custom, lower the coffin into the ground, throw the shovelful of earth on top, fill in the grave, slide the gravestone into place, seal the grave and set a guard. We go home and crawl around like disoriented, half-dead flies, like beings whose present is submerged in the past and to whom the future blows as down a drafty pipe.

The next day the man we buried stands before us and greets us as if he has just come back from a journey. For our part, we do not know whether to laugh or cry; nothing like this is anticipated within the range of human experience and emotion, within the limited spectrum of our comprehension between the boundaries of bearable pain and bearable joy. Thus, while the event explodes upon us and reveals such vast dimensions that we dare not trust ourselves to it or believe it, because to us mortals it seems inhuman, he shows us his hands and feet and side—just as one might show souvenirs of some journey—in order to prove that he really was there (and was not, for instance, hidden in the house all the time), really was in the land of death and of shadows, the land of cold and of imprisonment without hope, of which the four coffin planks are only a symbol. He really was in the land where all life is of the past and where the soul is robbed of every hope that seemed justified here below, like losing a watch and not knowing when or how one lost it. He really was among the shades of Homer and Virgil, in the land of shadows of the Psalms and the Book of Job and the Wisdom literature, among the shadowy figures like Samuel when the Witch of Endor conjured him up for the doomed Saul, who, on the morrow, would be just such an insubstantial shadow himself, without hope, incapable of looking to heaven for help and deliverance, for heaven is more tightly closed than the Iron Curtain, and even if the whole world or hell were to burn, it would not melt this curtain; anyway, who knows what is behind the curtain, someone or no one.

The Empty Tomb, 1889 – Mikhail Nesterov

From this realm, therefore, he returns and shows his wounds. The open wounds allow us to see through, as it were, to what was, a past that, as such, is past; they also allow us to see what was—what, evidently, now is—and what will be.

But now, friends, let us imagine something even more difficult, something even more fantastic. Let us assume, for argument’s sake, that the dead man of whom we have been speaking is actually the “Logos”, as understood by the received religious and philosophical wisdom of the late ancient world. It is not at all enough to translate it as “world reason”, “world soul” or “cosmic reason”: we must speak here of divine reason indwelling the world, mirroring and expressing itself in the universe; we must speak of a divine meaning informing the world, human existence and all things, a formal and material logic on which depend the truth and validity of all individual statements made by men and that forms the basis for the (albeit rather imperfect) continuity of our everyday life. If, for the sake of argument, we accept this presupposition, what would follow from it? As a result of the death of this person, the meaning of our personal existence and of the world’s existence, of the whole of nature and the whole of history, would have gone to the grave with him. Not just in the way that every death brings the world to an end and signifies an irreparable loss that puts a question mark over the meaning of life as such. No. For in such a case all other people go on living and believing in some meaning to existence; they presuppose it in order to go on living at all. But there is more: we need to go further and imagine that, after some indefinable period, this world meaning comes to life again on the celebrated “third day”; and now it acquires a meaning, a logos, a logic, that is no longer of this world, no longer transitory, but directly divine, eternal, so absolute and fulfilled in every respect that its meaning could not be or become fuller.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, Caravaggio, 1601-02

This is the supposition made by the Christian Faith. The world’s ultimate destiny—as nature and as the history of mankind—is summed up both really and symbolically in the historical destiny of the man Jesus Christ. Ecce homo: behold man! Behold life destined for death! That is his destination; thither his destiny draws him, to a profound abyss of oblivion. And the shadow cast by this end covers everything with horror and chill, confusing all the threads of reason. But with the Resurrection from the dead, of whom the man Jesus Christ is the firstfruits, man comes forth from God, new, eternal. On the other side of death he begins his immortal life. And thanks to the death on the Cross on the part of the one man Jesus Christ, who was God’s Son, expiating sin and death’s doom on behalf of all, this eternal Resurrection life reflects a brilliant light onto the whole of our doomed existence. “Death, where is thy sting, where is thy victory?” Death is still there, and yet it has been superseded. The Cross is there but has turned into Easter. All the questions that guilty existence is bound to ask are still there, and yet “whenever our hearts condemn us, God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything”.

This brings us to the decisive question: What is it that takes place on Holy Saturday? What kind of a day is this on which, as the old hymn says (and it is followed here by Hegel and Nietzsche), “God is dead”? The world’s meaning, the purpose of existence, is dead and buried; the object of our faith, our hope and our love is stolen from us, so that, literally, we are cast down and left alone in an unspeakable void, disappointed and forsaken: “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days . . . concerning Jesus of Nazareth. . . . We had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since this happened.” In between came the day of death, the day when life had no being. Not merely a day when life and its meaning faded for a while, when hope had become somewhat sleepy. Not merely a day when a few strands of the world reason had become tangled while the rest of its machinery, the majority of its moving parts, had continued to function tolerably well. Not merely a day when certain components of rational thought were not properly evident, while the underlying laws of formal logic remained unshaken, seemingly unaffected by the events in Jerusalem. No. On this day the world’s meaning died and was buried without any hope of the resulting hiatus ever being bridged: there was no hope of ever closing the rift opened up by this death. For the Resurrection effected by God upon his dead Son is an act of such perfect freedom and grace that it has no connection with anything that is of the world; it originates beyond death, beyond this absolute hiatus, this rift and rent, this collapse, this world’s end, at some point that no rationality, no creature, can envisage. There is a total end and there is a total beginning, but . . . what comes in between them? Is death, for instance, “being dead”, the neutral, persisting background against which the foreground events of dying and rising again take place? And, if this cannot be, what is it that persists between death and Resurrection? What links them together so that, all the same, they are the history of a single being, dying, dead and now rising again? A single world meaning, which has passed away and gone, to acquire new, eternal reality, presence and future in God? This is a problem of theological logic; perhaps it is the problem that the theologians have never attended to and that, if it were taken seriously, would threaten to throw into confusion all our beautiful Archimedean drawings on paper. And yet it is what is called the Logos tou staurou, the word and the message of the Cross, by Paul, who, in Corinth, renounces all other worldly and divine wisdom because God himself “will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever. . . . Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? . . . I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” Risen too, of course, the “firstfruits of the dead”. Yes, he, he is the continuity for which we have been looking, the connecting thread linking ruin and rising, which does not break even in death and hell. He it is who walks along paths that are no paths, leaving no trace behind, through hell, hell which has no exit, no time, no being; and by the miracle from above he is rescued from the abyss, the profound depths, to save his brothers in Adam along with him.

And now there is something like a bridge over this rift: on the basis of the grace of the Resurrection there is the Church’s faith, the faith of Mary; there is the prayer at the grave, the faithful watching and waiting. It is a lightly built bridge, and yet it suffices to carry us. What it spans, however, is not some indifferent medium but the void of everlasting death. Nor can we compare the two sides as if from some higher vantage point; we cannot bring the two together in some rational, logical context by using some method, some process of thought, some logic: for the one side is that of death in God-forsakenness, and the other is that of eternal life. So we have no alternative but to trust in him, knowing, as we walk across the bridge, that he built it. Because of his grace we have been spared the absolute abyss, and yet, as we proceed across the bridge, we are actually walking alongside it, this most momentous of all transformations; we do not observe it, but can only be seized and pulled into it, to be transformed from dead people into resurrected people. May the sign of this transformation be found on our Janus destiny. May its mark be branded on each of our works, those that come to an end inexplicably and those that, inexplicably, are resurrected through grace. Their two faces can never meet; they can never behold each other, and we can never link up the two ends because the rope across the chasm is too short. So we must put it into God’s hand: only his fingers can join our broken parts into a whole.

This is an excerpt from an anthology of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s sermons entitled You Crown the Year With Your Goodness published by Ignatius Press. Used with permission.