CHRISTMAS: Grace In Human Depths by Karl Rahner

Grace In Human Depths by Karl Rahner

From The Mystical Way in Everyday Life

It is not particularly enjoyable to prepare a commentary or to write an editorial about Christmas.  The listener or reader may feel the same way.  Isn’t it always the same old thing – a little “festive mood,” some pious and altruistic phrases, a few expensive gifts (along with the work of expressing one’s gratitude afterwards)?  And then everything continues as before.  Those who are Christians are under a particular obligation not to be deluded by the wonder of Christmas.  After all, Christians should not be people who cover up the miserable truth about human existence; most certainly not.  Christians hang on the wall a cross that frames their life, a cross that is a sign of faith, a gallows of sorts, on which a person who was nailed to it died.  Therefore, Christmas can mean only the beginning of a life that in this world ends with a cross (or with death, or in the empty bitterness of complete disappointment – it all comes out the same in the end).

After Christmas – and this should be mentioned during Christmas – everything continues the same as before.  We continue the same as before.  We reach Heavenly heights by doing so: all the way to the moon and farther still.  And finally we reach death (though a well-mannered person from either the East or the West should not talk about that because it is not proper, because talking about it is unacceptable unless one is referring to sensational news of human interest, news that could be financially lucrative).

Should one stubbornly withdraw during these days or should one steel oneself to go along with Christmas because it is the best thing to do and proper behavior means not showing how one really feels?  Well, aside from these two options, one could do something else, namely ask oneself what Christmas actually means from a Christian perspective.  An answer to this question might also be of interest to the non-Christian.  One could ask whether on the very inside of a person (regardless of whether that person is officially a Christian or not) there lies the invincible courage to believe in Christmas, in the true Christmas, regardless of whether one admits to it or simply says one cannot do so.

Since God made Christmas without asking us, it is quite possible that we believe more than we might like to admit, more than we know based on our theoretical views about ourselves and our life.  Why so?  We are always those who are beyond themselves (what a burden and what an honor!), the free ones, the ones accountable to themselves, the hoping ones.  We live the concreteness of life from the perspective of the transcendent.  We have our origin in the depths of the nameless and inexpressible.

We can most certainly act dead with regard to this; we can say that we cannot relate; we can try to stick to the everyday and the concrete, assessing what is held up to the light while refusing to turn to the elusive light (which incidentally is the reason we can see at all what we hold up to the light).  Yet the mystery still permeates our existence and repeatedly forces us to look at it: in the joy that is no longer aware of its cause; in fear, which dissolves our ability to comprehend our existence; in the love that knows itself as unconditional and everlasting; in the question that frightens us with its unconditional nature and boundless vastness.

In this way, we are ever confronted with the mystery that is, that is eternal, that is origin without beginning, that is ever present and ever retreats untouched.  We call it God.  When we say God, we mean the ultimate mystery.  When we are aware of the difference between the ability to think compared to the thought itself, joy compared to what is momentarily joyous, responsibility compared to that for which one takes responsibility,  the infinite future compared to the present moment, the immeasurable hope compared to the immediate striving, there we are dealing with God, regardless of whether we use this name for the nameless one or another name or none at all.

And when we have accepted this thinking, loving, hoping existence in the depth of our being, despite all the premature, impatient grievances and protests on the surface of our existence, then we have already opened up and given into him.  Many will do so, even if they assume they do not know God (one can always know him as the incomprehensible one, for otherwise one has confused him with something else), even if quiet awe prevents them from daring to utter his name.

With such an acceptance of one’s existence, an obedient entrusting of oneself to this mystery, it is possible that there occurs what in Christian terminology is called grace: God is and remains mystery.  But God also is the depths where human existence is accepted; a nearness and not only distance, forgiveness and not only judgment.  God personally fills the never-ending questions of thought, the vastness of hope, and the eternal demand for love.  While remaining silent, God is in that depth of our being which opens up to us only when we humbly allow ourselves to be embraced by mystery without wishing to take charge of it.  If this happens, then Christmas has already happened in us, this arrival of God, which Christianity says happens by God’s grace, which is granted to those who do not resist it on account of a guilt that pairs fear with arrogant self-sufficiency.

Since we are a people of history, of the concrete, of the here and now, and since the arrival of God had to be his act, irreversible, irresistible, and historically concrete both as a self-offering of God and as an act to be ultimately accepted by humans, humanity has fixed in its annals this event of the arrival of God as something final, unsurpassable, and irrevocable, namely in Jesus of Nazareth.  In him there exists the human act of surrender to the infinite mystery par excellence, and – like everything that involves freedom and decision – is grace in and of itself.  In him, God expressed himself (and continues to do so) as the unutterable mystery, as the total and irrevocable word, spoken to all of us as a God of nearness, of inexpressible intimacy and forgiveness.

Here question and answer are united, unblended, and inseparable; here God and the human being are one without mutual exclusion.

Even when people are still far from using explicit words for this type of revelation yet are accepting of their life, of their humanity, in silent patience or, better yet, in faith, hope, and love (or whatever one might call these) as the mystery hidden in the secret of eternal love and as bearing life in the very midst of death, then they are saying “yes” to Jesus Christ, even though they may be unaware of it.  For when people let go and jump, they fall into an already existing depth, even if they did not personally measure that depth beforehand.  If they accept their own humanity (though that is terribly difficult, and it remains unknown whether one ever really does so), they have accepted the Son of Man, since in him God has accepted humanity.

According to scripture, whoever loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.  This is the ultimate truth, because God himself has become the neighbor, and in every neighbor it is always this one Neighbor and most Distant One whom one accepts and loves.  When we accept the silent mystery that envelops our existence and appears as both distance and overwhelming nearness, the sheltering home and the mild love that does not hold back anything; when we have the courage to see ourselves in a way made possible only by grace and faith; when we recognize the reason for this closeness and its absolute promise and arrival in the one whom we call the Son of Man, then we have experienced Christmas by the grace of faith.

Some may have the courage of an explicit faith in the truth of Christmas, while others accept it only quietly in the unfathomable depth of their own existence, filled by a blessed hope without words.  When the former accept the latter as “anonymous” Christians, then all can celebrate Christmas together.  The seemingly superficial and conventional Christmas hoopla is blessed in the end with truth and depth.  What looks like a sham in light of all the holiday activity, then, is not the complete truth, for in the background stands the holy and silent truth that God has arrived after all and is celebrating Christmas with us.

Thus, we are more honestly and more deeply in the truth when we are able to look beyond the initial and justified skepticism, about the conventional Christmas by celebrating it freely, not taking too seriously our doubts, and rejoicing in the feast as the sign that God’s arrival has already transcended all our plans and all our disappointments.  If then after Christmas things continue the same as before, the truth still remains that God has accepted us.  And our depths are filled by his grace.

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