Seeing the form

Since the eighteenth century, the figure of Jesus Christ has been studied by text-critics, ancient historians, philosophers, archaeologists and millions of ordinary people who have asked, ‘who is he?’ How can we even see who he is, through the jumble of different pictures of him thrown by the Gospels, 1500 years of lofty Christian icons and a hundred years or so of atheist portraits of a humanist Jesus? How can we hear him over the cacophony of biblical critics and believers, philosophers and bishops? How can we put together the pieces of the puzzle or mystery which is Jesus Christ? For von Balthasar, faith consists in seeing Christ as he truly is, seeing the inner ‘form’ of his personality expressed in the unique historical form of his life and self-sacrifice. Unless God gives us the faith to illuminate Christ, he will remain for us what one biblical critic called, ‘a stranger and an enigma’.[1] Even the disciples and Apostles, Jesus’ followers and friends, were baffled by him. Peter, who had recognized that Jesus is the Messiah, ran away and denied him when he realized that the Romans would crucify him. Who could blame him? Who could see the form of God in a bleeding man nailed to a wooden cross? It is, von Balthasar says, the Holy Spirit who allows us to see God’s enduring radiance and beauty and thus the ‘Form’ of God in the crucified Christ. The Holy Spirit enables us to see God’s self-giving love poured out by Jesus on the Cross. It is through the Holy Spirit that Who He Is is revealed by the Cross. God’s love creates our faith in Jesus and enables us to see him for who he is.

Von Balthasar insists that this is not a ‘special’ sort of seeing which looks over and beyond the actual historical person of Jesus. Faith is a real, sensory seeing of the bodily, historical events of Jesus’ life, and which perceives the form of God in and through those unique circumstances. Faith helps us to see with our own eyes, not with anyone else’s. When we get to know another person, it is not because we have spied and stalked our way into their private life, but because they want to be friends and chose to open themselves to us. Just so, in the act of faith, we see what Jesus communicates of himself, by the grace of the Holy Spirit. For von Balthasar, the ‘Preface’ said at Mass on Christmas day sums up the meaning of faith as ‘vision’ of Christ’s form: Because through the mystery of the Incarnate Word the new light of your brightness has shone into the eyes of our mind; that knowing God visibly, we might be snatched up by this into the love of invisible things. We see Christ’s ‘form’, and we see God’s act of self-communication. God opens a door to us: ‘For this particular perception of truth ... a “new light” is expressly required which illumines this particular form, a light which ... breaks from within the form itself . the “new light” will . make seeing the form possible and be itself seen along with the form.’[2]

  • [1] Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to
  • [2] Wrede, trans. W. Montgomery (London: Adam and Charles Black, 1910), p. 399.
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