“Sketch for the Crucifixion,” Thomas Eakins

“The inner reality of love,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar in Love Alone is Credible, “can be recognized only by love.” It is easy to wonder what this inner reality must be when its secret shape is revealed through the death of the God-Man on the cross.

What is it that we recognize when this One, fully human and fully divine, cries out in agony and surrenders his life? What of love is there to acknowledge here? Do we not merely recognize darkness and defeat? After all, this is not merely a sacrifice for the sake of a loved one. Should he have thrown himself in the way of a dagger for the sake of someone else, I could grasp the inner intent: I know what it means to love someone in particular so deeply as to suffer pain. Nor am I able to interpret this death as an act of compassion that brings immediate comfort. He is more comprehensible when he weeps for Lazarus (Jn 11:35ff) than when he writhes under the double conviction of Rome and Israel. That is to say, with Lazarus rests compassion I understand; a gruesome criminal’s death as “compassion” is less clear to me. Nor, finally, am I able to find God so easily on the cross. His divinity makes it somehow worse. God is omnipotent, infinite, perfect – and what I see in the crucifixion is miserable defeat. That this man is also simultaneously, hypostatically God renders his defeat more bewildering and not less so.

And this death, it is said, unveils the depths of love. Really? What of love am I able to recognize here?

If I ask the question honestly enough, an abyss opens up in my very understanding of love. Here is a sacrifice whose dimensions are so universal as to sunder the bounds of sacrifice itself: all of humanity is treated with the passion of a particular person, and a dagger is taken for all as if for just one. Here is compassion so immeasurable that it freely surrenders its own innocence. Here is a God who unveils might through weakness.

The paradoxical depths force either a re-casting of love, a transfiguration of its imagined contours, or a rejection of the cross as any form of love at all. A middle-road is simply intolerable. Either this gruesome death is somehow really love, or it somehow really is not. To make of it a salutary myth is to divest it of every power to challenge. If, on the other hand, this man is God – now there is where the strangeness is.

The transfiguration of love takes place with the identity of this man, Jesus, who is God. Now it is possible to see (as it was not before) that God loves in such a way as to overpower with powerlessness; now we see, says von Balthasar, that “God, in the freedom of his love, makes the decision to descend kenotically all the way into the forsakenness of the world.” Here, in the forsakenness of the cross, where “the abyss of all tragedy must be plumbed to the very bottom,” love unites itself to sorrow for the sake of overcoming tragedy. But you see, the inversion occurs exactly in the tragedy. Here is a love so unsearchable that it uncovers the depths of tragedy without itself becoming tragic. Here is a love of such depth that Jesus returns from the darkness of death itself on the third day.

What is remarkable about Christian love, if it is to be taken seriously in the way it wants to be, is that it is found on the cross.

What is recognized in the cross is love as I know it, and love as I do not. If I am honest, I am always rattled by the thought of it. If I am honest, I recognize that no dimension of the abyss of the cross has been kept from me, and yet that this is also what renders it intolerable. How is the Christian to love? In exactly this way. With a compassion that is willing to open itself to tragedy without succumbing to tragedy; with a vulnerability that knows defeat without becoming defeat; with a passionate particularism that offers itself in the flesh rather than in ideology. Most of all, Christian love can only live if it is animated by divine love. Here is a love that is only possible if God reaches into the depths of the human heart and makes it possible. Here the paradox is at its most existentially unwavering.

The Christian vocation is to search the depths of the cross in the Spirit (cf. 1 Cor 2:10), and to feel the endless vertigo of the abyss that the cross opens and overcomes. We would be overcome by the task if it were not already achieved in an irrevocable fashion by that singular One on the cross. So Christian hope rests in the boundlessness of a divine love that searches for us in the deepest dark; and Christian love is bound to the same search, both within and without. There are shadows everywhere, and in the cross they somehow become light.

We are required only not to let go of love, the love that believes and hopes and through both is suspended in the air so that its Christian wings may grow. Soaring in the air, I also necessarily experience the abyss below, which is only part of my own flight.