Each year between 1926 and 1933, the Swiss theologian Karl Barth penned a Christmas meditation for a German daily newspaper. In his 1931 reflection, ‘It gives new lustre to the world’, Barth began by asking a question asked each Advent by Christians generally, and perhaps especially by those called upon to preach: ‘What does it mean to hear the Christmas message?’ He proceeds to say that if the question is put like that, ‘then it behoves us all, especially if we happen to be theologians, to keep our mouths shut and first to consider that the Christmas message is not a philosophy, nor an ideology, nor a moral system or anything like that’. Instead, the Christmas word is ‘the Word of God to which no one has the key and whose real meaning for us, now as in former ages, is God’s secret. Hidden is the point where the Christmas message concerns each one of us and our whole generation, where its grace and judgement, its promise and command affect us’.
However (and it is a big ‘however’), as Barth proceeds to note, the question posed above does not need to be put like that. We could ask, for example, ‘What does it mean that we have heard the Christmas message?’; in which case, while we cannot lay hold of the full reality of the Christmas message, interpret and apply it, as if it were some human wisdom, neither can we or should we ignore its testimony which speaks to us of its hidden reality, of its way and nature, whereby both we and every other generation are reminded of certain possibilities, which are, so to speak, the outer garb of an incomprehensible but real encounter between God and humanity. In the grace of God, we can and must speak that which we know and have heard. In the grace of God, we can and must bear witness, testimony, to God’s self-disclosure. And in the grace of God, this testimony is preserved for us in Holy Scripture.
When, therefore, the Christmas word seems too incredible to believe, we can hear … and believe again. And what is this word? Barth again:
If God had wanted to deal with us as He is free to do, and as we well deserved it, according to His principle, He would never have become man. But He was and is merciful, and therefore in Christ He has come together with us (with us!), though His holiness and our weakness and wickedness should really exclude any coming together on His part and any thought of cooperation on our part. But God did and does just this, the impossible or – should we say? – that which is practical only for Him the Merciful One, which must happen so that His free and merciful will be done. The fact that also in this respect human beings can believe the eternal Light, means that we do perhaps have the will to do that which concerns us most, and which under any circumstance must be done in common with others. – Karl Barth, Christmas (trans. Bernhard Citron; Edinburgh/London: Oliver and Boyd, 1959), 47.
(NB. This is a reposting of my contribution to the Advent reflections at Hopeful Imagination)