Woman at the Cross

One of the most powerful passages of the Theo-Drama is Balthasar's description of Mary's participation in the kenotic "silencing" of the incarnate Word of God. Her silent obedience that makes possible the conception and birth of the infant Christ is mirrored by her solidarity, standing at the foot of the Cross, with the silence of his death - a silence from which the speech of Pentecost is in turn born. Balthasar returns again and again to the Johannine account of the Passion, with Mary and the beloved disciple present to signify the birth of the church from the death of Christ. Mary, especially, is said to participate in the passion: "Jesus died suffocated under the weight of the world's sin, and his Mother shared in this event" (Balthasar 1988-98: III, 337).

Mary is, then, a term of continuity in the immense discontinuity of the Cross; the term that enables the response of creation to God to be recognized beyond the "suffocation under the weight of the world's sin." Balthasar, as is well known, grounds the diastasis of God and creation in the infinite "distance" between Father and Son that opens up in the abandonment of Son by Father on the Cross. The possibility of Mary's obedience, as the free obedience of the creation to its Creator, is, then, given in the crucifixion and descent into hell. But by her presence at the Cross the outcome of the abandonment of God by God is already proclaimed. Just as, in the "death of the self" involved in the acceptance of mission, the potentia obedientialis - itself, it must always be recalled, in each case a gift of God -survives to receive the transforming grace of God, so in the theo-drama the archetype of feminine obedience "survives" the cross and its discontinuity.7

What are the consequences of this for Balthasar's understanding of sexual difference? If Mary can be seen to "survive" the death of Christ intact, the ordering of male and female, masculine and feminine, also "survives." The analogies it grounds remain free from the critique implied by the infinite diastasis of Father and Son completed in the crucifixion. This is, it would seem, why Balthasar can make his gendered analogies face both ways, secured by Mary's uninterrupted mediation as the pivot between innerworldly and innertrinitarian relations.

Is the attribution of this degree of continuity to Mary justified? We have already noted Mary's lack of theological "personhood" as Balthasar understands the latter; she accepts and fulfills her mission perfectly, but her mission simply is perfect acceptance. She is assimilated to the feminine principle, and hence defined, not as a particular "answer" to the divine call, but as the essence of "answering." A similar abstractness prevails even in the powerful "recapitulation" of her participation in the sufferings of Christ. Because of the beloved disciple, she is still "mother," and because of her presence at the Cross for the first time truly "bride"; hence she is still feminine, hence, it would seem, nothing in her has changed.

The term of continuity can be more precisely specified; not Mary but Mary's womb. Throughout this passage of the Theo-Drama there is an interplay of the images of voice and silence, sterility and fruitfulness. Mary's "barrenness" after her son's death is linked with the apparent futility of the suffering of Christ on the Cross; but the message of the Johannine account is that "God . . . can take the 'nothingness' of unfruitful virginity . . . and make of it the fruitful motherhood of the Virgin, with a fruitfulness that extends to the whole world" (Balthasar 1988-98: IV 361). What "survives" is the potentia obedientialis, the "space" for divine action, the womb that (it has always appeared) defines "femininity" and thus makes sexual difference possible. The maternal body must, Balthasar explicitly states, be included within the "antecedent idea, offer and mission of the Lamb" (Balthasar 1988-98: IV, 360); but at the same time it appears to transcend this mission, to stand alongside it rather than within it. At the same time, Balthasar's account recognizes that Mary's "motherhood," and all the relationships that shaped her particular existence as a woman (not as "woman") have been shattered by this death. She has been sent away and handed over to another (Balthasar 1988-98: IV 360).

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