Karl Rahner on the Importance of Christmas
In a guest editorial in the German weekly paper, Die Ziet (December 21, 1962), the renowned Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner offered some reflections on the meaning and importance of Christmas. His thoughts were given within the context of an already banal experience of the holiday, during which people take a few days (if that) to mark an obligatory “festive” period, which ultimately seemed to subordinate the Solemnity to something less than the most significant event in salvation history.
It is important to remember that Rahner had a consistent view of the Paschal Mystery that began with the Incarnation and continued through Jesus of Nazareth’s life, death and resurrection — a contiguous, but not discrete, series of salvific moments that together represent the Christian mysteries. It is only viewed in whole that we can call, as the first disciples did in the earliest kerygma, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ.
That we continue to celebrate the Christmas season, at least until the Baptism of the Lord, you might find it helpful to consider Rahner’s insights. Rahner begins his reflections by setting up the following scene:
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 a people who cover up the miserable truth about human existence; most certainly not…
After Christmas — and this should be mentioned during Christmas — everything continues as before. We continue the same as before. We reach heavenly nights by doing so: all the way to the moon and farther still. And finally we reach death….
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.
I think what Rahner gets at in the beginning of his reflection helps explain the desire so many well-meaning Christians have to diminish Christmas to a less feast of the faith. Sure, they too lament over the “commercialization” and “secularization” of Christmas as it has been ostensibly taken over by a culture not intent to focus on the Incarnation, but instead make a profit.
But, I think it is in part for this very reason that some Christians are happy to believe Christmas is therefore different from or lesser than other Christians celebrations. Why? Christmas has been commercially hijacked, but Holy Week — so far, at least — has not. Therefore, there must be something mundane or pedestrian about the Solemnity of the Incarnation that makes it co-optable over and against “the truly important feasts.”
Yet, this is not the case at all. Rahner makes the point that we can “act dead” with regard to the truly overwhelming nature of what we celebrate at Christmas. People are willing to consider Christmas superficially, even with religious and well-meaning intention. But, what we celebrate on the 25 of December and the days that follow each Church year is so infinitely profound that we oftentimes willingly ignore its profundity.
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.
Rahner is not disparaging toward those who do not pause to reflect on the absolute significance of this feast, but instead considers their disposition like those he comes to call “anonymous Christians” who unthematically experience the salvation and mystery of God that Christians categorically articulate.
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.
It is very tempting for believers, like many unbelievers, to go through the motions of the Christmas season, observing one — maybe two – days of festive celebration and banal gift exchange in place of the solemnity of our salvation that we celebrate in faith.
Yet, Rahner holds tightly to the belief that even those who do not recognize the centrality of the Incarnation, viewing it perhaps as the necessary effect of Holy Week instead of the absolute expression of God’s love for creation, somehow mark its deeper meaning within in inexpressible words and unthinkable profundity.
May we take the remaining days of the Christmas Season to reflect on the significance of what God has done for us and continues to do for us.
Merry Christmas (still)!