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.