Review: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s theological vision of the Eucharist, heaven and a Christ-centered anthropology
“Don’t judge a book by its cover” is usually sound advice. But sometimes the cover can provide precious insight into both the spirit and content of a work. This is certainly the case with The Eucharistic Form of God. The cover of Jonathan Ciraulo’s splendid study of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s sacramental theology depicts Raphael’s “Disputà del sacramento,” painted in the early 1500s to adorn the library of Pope Julius II. Particularly noteworthy in the fresco is that the center of the converging horizontal and vertical lines is the eucharistic host enshrined upon the altar. Here, in the well-known words of the hymn of Thomas Aquinas, “Adoro te devote,” believers experience the memorial of Christ’s passion as source of present grace and pledge of everlasting glory.
Ciraulo claims that “Balthasar’s theology as a whole is concerned, one could say consumed, with making the Eucharist the linchpin for all speculative dogmatics.” So much is this the case that, in contrast to the mainstream of the Catholic theological tradition, Balthasar contends that in heaven the blessed will experience not the cessation of the Eucharist, but its full realization.
It is worth considering the ramifications of this view in four crucial areas of theology: Christology, theological anthropology, Trinitarian theology and eschatology.
For Balthasar, the Eucharist is not just one of the many actions Jesus performs, reserved for his Last Supper with his friends. It is the form, the pattern, of his entire life.
For Balthasar, the Eucharist is not just one of the many actions Jesus performs, reserved for his Last Supper with his friends. It is the form, the pattern, of his entire life. His very being is to be self-gift: offering to his heavenly Father for the sake of his brothers and sisters. His kenosis, his self-emptying, in obedience to his Father’s will, is so that the world “may have life and have it to the full” (Jn 10:10). Thus, Jesus’ entire life, and not only his death, reveals his eucharistic passion for communion. “My body for you” marks and informs the salvific mission entrusted to him by his Father.
Jesus’ vision of communion receives ultimate expression, finds unique embodiment, in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Here he becomes the food and drink by which others may share in the arduous joy of transforming communion. Jesus is the vine; believers the branches: Through him and in him eucharistic communion takes root and spreads.
From this vantage, Balthasar proceeds to delineate a Christ-centered anthropology: a consideration of the human from the normative reality of the eucharistic Christ. Here Balthasar’s distinction between the “individual” and the “person” comes to the fore. Ciraulo rightly affirms that “intimate relationality in which one’s identity is implicated in that of others is essential to Balthasar’s understanding of person as opposed to a mere individual.” Life in Christ, initiated in baptism and brought to fulfillment in the Eucharist, is a progressive incorporation into the body of Christ. The Christian thus participates in Christ’s eucharistic form and mission, his being for others, his passion for communion.
Unlike the “buffered” individual of secularity (acutely depicted and critiqued by Charles Taylor in A Secular Age), Christian “personal” existence is constituted by relations of gratitude and service. It is, in sum, eucharistic existence. And, since Christ’s Eucharist is the fruit of his sacrifice even unto death, the believer’s participation in Christ’s salvific mission, to further the world’s “at-onement,” will lead him or her to share his atoning suffering for the sake of his Body. As Ciraulo asserts: “the eucharistic Christ causes those who receive him to become eucharistic themselves. Christ’s body, itself dissolved, is now a dissolving agent.”
Hence, the eucharistic Christ is the basis for and measure of Christian morality. Indeed, for the Christian, morality finds its deepest ground in a Christic mysticism: “As long as you did it for one of these my least brethren, you did it for me” (Mt 25:40). But the condition for its possibility lies always in the union of Christians with their head: “For, apart from me, you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5). A eucharistic ethic requires eucharistic celebration. It is ever nourished and renewed by participation in Christ’s eucharistic sacrifice, the reverent reception of his body broken and his blood outpoured.
Thus, for all Balthasar’s valorizing of the aesthetic, of the place of beauty in the life of the believer and in Catholic theology, he is no advocate of mere “aestheticism.” The beauty of space and song, of art and poetry, always subserves the beauty of holiness, the transformed way of life to which Christ summons his disciples. Long before the Second Vatican Council issued its “universal call to holiness,” Balthasar had argued forcefully for the inseparability of theology and spirituality and for the surpassing authority of the saints.
Reflecting upon the perduring importance of the Eucharist in the economy of salvation, in humanity’s call to sanctifying communion, opens upon the contemplative conviction that the very life of the Triune God manifests a eucharistic dynamic. With allowance for the need to speculate soberly and to honor the “ever greater difference” of all analogous language about God, the interpersonal exchange among the persons of the Trinity manifests relations of giving and receiving, of thanksgiving and rejoicing. Such relations enact that generative eucharistic communion from which all creation springs and to which it returns.
The above insights find dramatic denouement in the book’s final chapter: “Sub Velamento: The Eucharist between this World and the Next.” Balthasar’s robust sacramentality accents the real presence of Christ in our earthly Eucharist. Yet the full reality remains to be revealed, thus the “velamentum,” the eucharistic veil, that at once conceals and reveals. For the eucharistic Christ is not yet “all and in all” (Col 3:11).
And so Ciraulo insists: “for Balthasar, the place that Christ goes to prepare is simply himself.” Heaven is Christ, but it is the whole Christ, head and members. The transparent communion, definitively inaugurated in Christ’s eucharistic sacrifice, will find its consummation in the marriage supper of the lamb (Rev 19:9). Balthasar exults that the promise of eternal life, prefigured in the Eucharist, is a life fully corporeal, communal and cosmic. Transfigured corporeality, new heavens and new earth, without doubt, but not discontinuous, not disincarnate; just as the risen Lord continues to bear his life-giving wounds.
Ciraulo offers an apt analogy: “Balthasar takes the notion of the Eucharist as a ‘foretaste’ of heaven to its logical conclusion. The foretaste is not like an appetizer, a small and entirely different food from the main course … but rather a literal tasting in advance of that eschatological banquet in which all limited and fumbling use of the body, community, and time are brought into perfection at the wedding feast of the lamb.”
The very life of the Triune God, a life of infinite communion, will then be fully reflected in the communion of holy ones in the ascended Christ, comprising the perfected finite image of the Triune God. And humanity’s long transformative journey from Genesis to Revelation will, at the last, be accomplished and consummated.
This fine book, by a most promising young scholar, is not only intellectually rewarding, it is prayerfully pondered—from cover to cover.