Among the literary gems I picked up at a recent parish bazaar was a compilation of homilies by the 20th-century theological heavyweight Karl Rahner, titled The Great Church Year and organized by liturgical seasons and feasts. On Christmas Day I opened to the first entry in the “Christmas Season” section and found, at first, a rather dismal proclamation of the insignificance of the world of human activity with a nihilism to rival the Ecclesiastes.
But then, in the middle of all this, in bursts the Incarnation, and it makes all the difference:
Through this fact, that God has become man, time and humanity are changed. Not to the extent that he has ceased to be himself, the eternal Word of God himself, with all his splendor and unimaginable bliss. But he has really become human. And now this world and its very destiny concern him. Now it is not only his work, but a part of his very self. Now he no longer watches its course as a spectator; he himself is now within it. What is expected of us is now expected of him; our lot now falls upon him, our earthly joy as well as the wretchedness that is proper to us. Now we no longer need to seek him in the endlessness of heaven, where our spirit and our heart get lost. Now he himself is on our very earth, where he is no better off than we and where he receives no special privilege, but our every fate: hunger, weariness, enmity, mortal terror and a wretched death. That the infinity of God should take upon itself human narrowness, that bliss should accept the mortal sorrow of the earth, that life should take on death – this is the most unlikely truth. But only this – the obscure light of faith – makes our nights bright, only this makes them holy.
It is the drastic self-abasement of God’s descent into the world and into the human experience – “dreadful, empty abysses” though they seem – that raise up the world and the human person and give them meaning: “an almost unbelievable fellowship, an astonishing communion between God and us.”
I’ve never been that nihilistic about the world in general, but as an unapologetic (sometimes self-defensive) melancholic, I find that Rahner meets me where I live (which, in another sense, is what the Incarnation is about). Especially so when, in the final section of this homily, he brings it to a personal level, putting the following words into the mouth of the Incarnate Word:
I am your life. I am your time. I am the gloom of your daily routine. Why will you not bear it? I weep your tears – pour yours out to me, my child. I am your joy. Do not be afraid to be happy, for ever since I wept, joy is the standard of living that is really more suitable than the anxiety and grief of those who think they have no hope. I am the blind alleys of all your paths, for when you no longer know how to go any further, then you have reached me, foolish child, though you are not aware of it. I am in your anxiety, for I have shared it by suffering it. And in doing so, I wasn’t even heroic according to the wisdom of the world. I am in the prison of your finiteness, for my love has made me your prisoner. When the totals of your plans and of your life’s experiences do not balance out evenly, I am the unsolved remainder. And I know that this remainder, which makes you so frantic, is in reality my love, that you do not yet understand. I am present in your needs. I have suffered them and they are now transformed, but not obliterated from my heart. I am in your lowest fall, for today I began to descend into hell. I am in your death, for today I began to die with you, because I was born, and I have not let myself be spared any real part of this death.
Do not be sorry, as Job was, for those who are born; for all who accept my salvation are born in this holy night because my Christmas embraces all your days and all your nights. I myself – my whole being and my whole personality – are truly engaged in the terrifying adventure that begins with your birth. I tell you, mine was no easier and no less dangerous than yours. I assure you, though, it had a happy ending. Ever since I became your brother, you are as near to me as I am to myself. If, therefore, I, as a creature, want to prove in me and I in you, my brothers and sisters, that I, as creator, have not made a hopeless experiment with the human race, who then shall tear my hand away from you? I accepted you when I took my human life to myself. As one of your kind, as a fresh start, I conquered in my failure.
If you judge the future only according to yourselves, you cannot be pessimistic enough. But do not forget that your real future is my present, the present that began today and shall never again become transitoriness. And so you are certainly planning in a realistic way if you rely on my optimism, which is not utopia but the reality of God. This reality – incomprehensible wonder of my almighty love – I have sheltered, safely and completely, in the cold stable of your world. I am there. I no longer go away from this world, even if you do not see me now. When you, poor mortals, celebrate Christmas, then say to everything that is there and to everything that you are, one thing only – say to me: ‘You are here. You have come. You have come into everything. Even into my soul. Even behind the stubbornness of my wickedness, which doesn’t want to let itself be pardoned.’
Within moments of great beauty, as I have experienced in celebrating the Feast of the Nativity, I sometimes find a certain lonely quality as well. Maybe that’s a melancholy temperament speaking; maybe it’s a weariness many of us are feeling from tumult within and without; maybe it’s also a different sort of longing that beauty evokes. And so at Christmastide, when we celebrate this “astonishing communion” with the Incarnate Word in the coldest and darkest part of the year, I need to hear these words of refreshing honesty intertwined with radical hope:
“Light the candles. They have more right to exist than all the darkness.”