Every thinking teacher will tell you this: the first class encapsulates the whole course. Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses the same thing at the beginning of The Glory of the Lord: “Beginning . . . determines all subsequent steps . . . [and] is the primal decision which includes all later ones.” Just as at the moment of its conception, the organism’s biological trajectory is already set, ready to become manifest with effort and time, so at the beginning of each class, the outlines of the class’s end or purpose is already packed within the first class. But the question of where a theology teacher should begin the semester is packed within the nature of theology itself, which Dei Verbum defines as “scrutinizing in the light of faith all truth stored up in the mystery of Christ” (DV 24).
The very depth, width, and breadth of the topic demands a foundation built upon something solid, a true “first thing.” Accordingly, theology teachers should begin class by proclaiming what St. Paul calls the “mystery” (mysterion): Christ, in whom we see God’s love for us. “I want their hearts to be encouraged and united in love, so that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery, that is, Christ himself, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:2-3).
The writings of St. John and St. Paul provide us with a reflection on the mystery that God loved us first, even while we were still sinners, dying for us on a cross. This is the beautiful mystery that so bedazzled Paul, and I am sure it will do the same for theology students at any level. It is the mystery of Christ, the divine agape.
The mystery is at the heart of St. Paul’s epistles, and pronounced frequently; teachers should follow his lead in class. Let’s first look at the First Letter to the Corinthians. St. Paul writes:
But we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For what human being knows what is truly human except the human spirit that is within? So also no one comprehends what is truly God’s except the Spirit of God. Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:7-12)
The unveiling of divine wisdom reached its peak in the cross, in which we see the fullness of divine love (agape) for us, despite our unworthiness. Agape love is care and concern for the other. It is beyond all self-interest and need. That is why, unlike human eros, which is characterized by need, divine love is beyond all want.
This is the love that so moved St. John, who saw it as being at the heart of creation and redemption. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1, 3). And “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). And so John speaks of the mystery in this way: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:10).
That God has loved us first is the healing, redeeming word that each heart is eager to receive. Throughout human history, and especially in our own day, humans have tried to “become worthy” of divine love. We judge our worthiness based on intelligence, earnings, physical appearance, desirability, work, children, etc. But such an approach is the pagan mistake of trying to get the gods to love us. Yet, the gods do not love us. They use us. The same logic governs the secular world. The “world” (the powers that be, as the Gospel calls it) does not love; it consumes and devours. Unfortunately, this is the world “as it is” and what our children are born into—a world of anxious striving. But this is also the world of alienation Christ overcame on the cross. Christ’s defeat of the world is the mystery, the divine design of this mysterion and of our salvation. It is just as dynamic and beautiful today as it was in Paul’s time, and it has been handed down to us.
This beautiful love is where Hans Urs von Balthasar began The Glory of the Lord, and we would do well to follow his example. If you read the first volume of his trilogy, you will see that he opens with the word “beauty”—the beauty that is the glory of the Lord. Later, in Love Alone Is Credible, a work that is a simplified form of the seven-volume Glory of the Lord, Balthasar identifies the sublime glory of God with the love of God that descends “to the end” of the night of Christ. It is by receiving this revelation that we, according to St. Paul, may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Eph. 3:19).
The Mystery, which is Christ himself, the “fullness” Paul speaks of in Ephesians and Colossians, needs some unpacking. During the first class, a teacher should bring to light a glimmer of Christ’s fullness, and see the whole course as a gradual ascent towards the Light—should see herself as a mystagogue (an initiator in the Mystery), not merely teaching doctrine, but, in the way of love, bringing the students into the mystery itself, which, according to Paul, already resides within us, ready to be comprehended: “The riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). And bringing the first lesson to a close, the teacher should point to the cross and tell the students, “During this course, that is what we will attempt to better understand under the guidance of the Spirit. It not only manifests our true identity but the hidden depths of God.”
By doing this, we will be following the advice St. Augustine of Hippo gave to catechists to “take this love, there, as the end that is set before you, to which you are to refer all that you say, and, whatever you narrate, narrate it in such a manner that he to whom you are discoursing on hearing may believe, on believing may hope, on hoping may love.” This love ought to be the beginning (arche) of theology class.