The Mystery of the Incarnation According to Contemporary Theology

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By Ann Shwe, S.J.A.


The mystery of the incarnation is the very center of the reality from which we live as Christians. God, the divine Trinity, is mystery. Human beings created by God and who have their origin in God are part of the mystery of God. Consequently, the incarnation by which the Word of God became flesh is mystery and the Church that is the extension of the mystery of the incarnation, is mystery. "The Church—that is, the Kingdom of Chris—already present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world" (LG. 3). "A mystery is not something undisclosed.... Mystery, on the contrary is the impenetrable which is already present" (Rahner 1966:108).

Therefore, mystery is not something that will one day stop being mysterious and become comprehensible. Mystery characterizes God, who, according to Karl Rahner remains incomprehensible "so much so that the immediate vision of God that is promised to us, as our fulfillment is the immediacy of the incomprehensible" (1966:108).

What do we Christians mean when we profess our faith in the incarnation of the Word of God? That is what we must try to say in ever new ways. "It is the whole task of Christology, which will never be completed" (1966:105). If, as it is presented, mystery is incomprehensible, then, we profess our faith in the mystery of the incarnation of the Word of God, not because we comprehend it fully but because we love Jesus of Nazareth and because we believe that he is God from what has been revealed to us in his life as a human being, that we find in the gospels. The Church has given her official formula regarding the mystery of the incarnation, at the Council of Chalcedon, in 451 ACE. "If all our insight means being open to the incomprehensible mystery" (1966:106), then, the formula given by the Church at Chalcedon is open-ended. According to Karen Kilby, "The Council of Chalcedon, one could say, decided upon a formula, and left it to the future to work out what that formula meant" (Kilby 1997:17). It is "the starting point of a spiritual movement of departure and return which is our only guarantee" (Rahner 1966:106).

All along the history of the Church, saints, theologians and Church leaders have launched into this spiritual movement of contemplating the mystery, trying to reach out to the incomprehensible mystery in an attempt to understand it a bit more each time. The Second Vatican Council, in the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation states: "The most intimate truth which this revelation gives us about God and about our salvation shines forth in Christ, who is himself both the mediator and the sum total of revelation"(DV 2). In other words, the incarnation of the Word of God is the revelation of God. Karl Rahner presents the incarnation as the climax of God's self-communication to humanity; as the self-expression of God and as the self-surrender of Jesus Christ.

Theologians like Karl Barth and Hans Urs von Balthasar as well as Rahner present the incarnation as Trinitarian. Von Balthasar specifies the incarnation as the extreme limit of God's solidarity with humanity in his theme of Christ's descent into hell. Peter Schineller in his book, A Handbook on Inculturation, states that "the most theological word to express the meaning of inculturation is incarnation" (Schineller 1990:20). Here again, we can describe the incarnation as the meaning of inculturation since the incarnate, infinite God adaptedhimself to the ways of finite beings. Liberation theologians would again claim that the mystery of the incarnation is liberation from sin; and that Christ, who lived a poor and simple life and suffered from unjust rulers, in his incarnation, as being in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. All this is a proof that we as Christians have the mystery of the incarnation at the center of our theological reflection.

As we cannot present all the reflections on the mystery of the incarnation made by contemporary theologians, in the following pages we shall consider the reflections made by Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The Mystery of the Incarnation according to Karl Rahner

The main idea in Karl Rahner's theology, as I understand it, is the relationship between the Creator and his creatures. According to Rahner, God created the world to communicate Godself to it. Therefore, God is the goal and end of creation as well as its origin and source. There is no existence without a relationship to God. Rahner points to the fact that human beings as knowing subjects have an unthematic experience within themselves of this relationship to God, their being oriented to God. Hence, human beings rise above themselves or go beyond themselves in search for the meaning of God and of themselves. They keep moving towards their source as well as their goal and their end, God.

This transcendental orientation of human beings to God is the unifying principle of Rahner's theology (Kelly 1977:39). He tries to deepen "the primal, transcendental relationship with God in creation and incarnation" (Kelly, 36). He enriches the "theological articulation of the significance of such a relationship" (Kelly, 36). Although God is mystery and the incarnation of the Word of God remains as mystery, Rahner tries to make Christian faith compatible with the contemporary world by presenting a "Christology within an evolutionary view of the world" (Rahner 1978:178). Within this, he tries to show the possibility of how the spiritual and the material world developed from matter to spiritual, spiritual to divine in Jesus Christ. For Rahner, God's salvation history is the history of the world. God makes his revelation in history and we are his audience, the hearers of his message. Therefore, divine history and human history are not disparate. God's salvation or revelation history takes place in human history.

According to Rahner, "The creation and the incarnation... are two moments and phases in the process of God's self-renunciation and self-expression into what is other than Godself (Rahner 1966:177-8). Karen Kilby makes this clear, by saying, "God from the beginning creates what is other than himself in order to give himself to it" (Kilby, 28) which takes place irrevocably in the incarnation. God's initial plan of creation is to unite Godself to it. All along the history of creation he made the offer of his self-gift to his creatures until finally it became a success in Jesus Christ. We should not separate grace and nature, spirit and matter, soul and body, religious and secular as belonging to two different worlds. They all belong to the same world of God's creation that God intends to make one with divine mystery. We shall now reflect on the main themes of Rahner's theology of the mystery of the incarnation.

The Incarnation as the Climax of God’s Self-Communication to Humanity

To reflect on the incarnation as the climax of God’s self-communication to humanity, we will have to start by reflecting on the beginning of its history or the beginning of "the event of God’s self-communication" as Rahner has stated.

"God is Love" (1 Jn 4:16). Being love, God desires to communicate himself, to express himself as love. Love being the essence of God, this self-communication of God who is infinite fullness and unrelatedness can remain as such. However, God wishes to share his fullness, to offer himself as a gift, to express himself outside of the Godhead as being gracious, as grace. To be able to do this, God created the material that would be "the possibility of being assumed, the material of a possible history of God" (Rahner 1966:115).

"In the beginning God created the heaven and earth. Now the earth was a formless void" (Gen 1:1-2). God created this void to fill it with his own fullness since "he has that wherewith to fill all" (1966:115). All the things visible and invisible, material and spiritual are the creation of the one and only God. As a result, all things material and spiritual, forming a single world of a unity in diversity, have God as their common origin, their common source. God’s offer of himself as a gift, as grace or as self-communication is made to all of his creation. Therefore the whole universe has God as its goal and its end just as he is its origin and its source. Creation, the world and its occupants were created with a call to become divine. God the source of goodness, created the world to divinize it and God saw that his creation was "very good" (Gen 1:31). As a result, the whole universe is moving towards becoming divinized, becoming united with God.

Regarding the material being and its process of becoming, Rahner writes:




Becoming must be understood as becoming more, as the coming to be of more reality, as reaching and achieving a greater fullness of being. But this more must not be understood as simply added to what was there before. Rather it must on the one hand be the effect of what was there before, and on the other hand it must be an intrinsic increase in its own being. But it means that if becoming is really to be taken seriously it must be understood as a real-transcendence, as surpassing oneself, as emptiness actively achieving its own fullness (Dych 2000:70).

It is, through this evolutionary process of becoming that Rahner attempts to work out, an "ascending Christology" that begins with creation and continues its process of becoming stage by stage—the first stage being the unity of matter and spirit that results in conscious human beings or spiritual creatures. As creation is ordered to the supernatural life of grace that is God's self-communication, Rahner coins this grace or God's self-communication as "supernatural existential" (Dych, 36).

The term "existential" designates the components that constitute human existence. When Rahner uses the term supernatural "existential," he means to say that since human beings have God as their goal and end, God's self-communication or grace is a "constituent part of our historical- human existence" (Dych, 37). Therefore, "the spiritual creature is constituted to begin with as the possible addressee of such a divine self-communication" (Rahner 1978:123). God's self-communication or grace is always present and operative in the human being as supernatural existential. According to W.V. Dych, "The presence of grace is not eradicated by the presence of evil, but remains an ever-present existential of human existence" (38). Hence, Rahner states: Man is the event of a free, unmerited and forgiving and absolute self- communication of God. As supernatural existential of the human existence, God's grace or God's self-communication is ever present as an offer to human beings. We are free to accept or reject it. Even if we reject it, it does not leave us. It remains there, being an existential of our existence and as a result of our rejecting it, we live in contradiction to ourselves, as well as to our goal and our end, God.

Precisely because the grace of God's seIf-communication is supernatural existential to human existence, human beings are transcendental and they go beyond themselves, moving towards God, the finite seeking to be united to the Infinite. This transcendence towards God causes the human being to experience an emptiness and a longing (Dych, 307) within himself. According to Rahner, "The emptiness of the transcendental creature exists because the fullness of God creates the emptiness in order to communicate himself to it" (Rahner 1978:123). We may recall the void created by God in Genesis (Gen 1:1-2). This void is experienced unthematically by the spiritual creature who longs to be filled.

God's intention in creating the void was to fill it with himself and as a result, man reaches out to God in transcendence. We must bear in mind that "the original knowledge of God is not the kind of knowledge in which one grasps an object that happens to present itself directly or indirectly from outside" (Dych, 44). God, being unobjectified as such means that the human person, the finite being is unable to grasp the infinite depth of the meaning of God fully. The result is that we are unable to form a positive, clear and definitive relationship with God. Therefore, man keeps on reaching out to grasp the incomprehensible mystery. Concerning this, Kelly writes,




This primal orientation to God in creation leads the human subject into a seemingly endless search for meaning. Nothing ever completely satisfies or fulfills. It is the same restlessness of heart that Augustine described in his confessions that Rahner sees at the roots of human search for meaning (Kelly, 35).

"Rahner believes that God has been progressively communicating himself both in and to the creature" (Macquerrie 1990:306). According to him, the evolutionary process of becoming has reached its second stage when the spiritual creature reaches out to God in self-transcendence to accept the offer of God’s self-communication or God’s grace which alone can fill his emptiness or void. However, the finite spiritual creatures can never be sure that he or she has accepted the offer definitely. Regarding this John O'Donnell writes, "All human history is the history of grace but this same history is ambiguous, made up of sinful, and graced elements, of truth and error" (O’Donnell 1984; 48).

Because the experiences such as the longing for God, the emptiness within one's being, seeking fulfillment are ambiguous and never fully satisfied, we need the historical Savior who would be the revelation of truth. Kelly writes, "One yearns not only for communion in God's being but also for the historical manifestation on God's part that the restlessness of one's soul can be satisfied only in God" (Kelly, 48). For us Christians, Jesus Christ is this historical manifestation. Rahner has named him: the "Absolute Savior," the "absolute bringer of salvation." The satisfaction that one seeks can be found through Jesus Christ as he himself has said, "I am the way, the truth and the life" (Jn 14:6). In Christ, God's self-communication, which God initiated at creation, is made concrete and validated since in him we see "a human being, one of us, definitively and absolutely accepting God's self-gift" (Kilby, 27).

According to Rahner, the incarnation of the Word of God appears as the "unambiguous goal of creation as a whole, in relation to which everything prior is merely a preparation of the scene" (Kelly, 52). God's self-communication to creation had been ambiguous and indefinite till "the appointed time came (when) God sent his Son, born of a woman, born a subject of the Law, to redeem the subjects of the Law and to enable us to be adopted as sons" (Gal 4:4-5). The incarnate Son of God lived a human life in perfect harmony with God's self-communication and made it unambiguous for the rest of humanity. Jesus Christ is the criterion of what is right and wrong in the transcendental experiences of humans. As the criterion, Jesus clarifies what is true or false in the transcendental experience, acceptance or refusal of God's self-gift. But he is not the answer to the question. The question remains, the mystery remains.

Rahner states that the incarnation is "an event through which this self-communion (of God) and (its) acceptance reaches a point in history which is irrevocable and irreversible" (O’Donnell, 312). In the incarnation of Christ, the union of the human and the divine takes place. Christ as the God-man is both the offer and the acceptance of God's self-communication. In the incarnation, God's dialogue with freedom regarding the acceptance of his self-gift, his self-communication or grace receives a definite "Yes," a total acceptance, a perfect obedience. Christ's obedience was so perfect that he was "obedient unto death, even death on a cross"(Phil 2:8). In fact, only the event of God's self-communication that meets with a beatifying acceptance like that of Christ can be called a real self-communication. Those prior to that of Christ were deficient as there had not been definite and total acceptance. Although God's dialogue with freedom is an ongoing dialogue till the end of time, it has received a definite, positive response in the incarnation of Christ and there will be no going back on it. The acceptance of God's self-communication by the humanity of Christ is irreversible, irrevocable; and this he has done for all of us including all of creation. With Christ, the process of God's self-communication becomes a success. It has reached its highest point, its peak, its climax.

John O'Donnell S.J. writes: "The incarnation is therefore anthropology in terms of its fulfillment" (312), meaning that the evolutionary process of becoming from matter to spiritual creatures and from spiritual creatures to God is fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. W. V. Dych has rightly expressed: "Theology is also and always anthropology and Christology is the beginning and end of anthropology" (Dych, 79). This does not mean that the self-communication of God has come to an end with Jesus but that it has reached its climax in him. The process of God's self-communication will go on until the whole world has become divinized. The incarnation of the Word of God is "the beginning of the divinization of the world" (Macquerrie, 307). We Christians who live this mystery of the incarnation must cooperate with God's self-communication following the example of Christ, so that the divinization of the world which began with Christ may finally be successfully completed.

The Incarnation as the Self-Expression of God

The Word of God has become flesh. Here, the word "become" is the cause for arguments, questionings and reasonings. It is a dogma of faith that God is "unchanging and unchangeable his eternally perfect fullness" (Rahner 1966:112). If God is unchangeable, how can we say that he became flesh as the word "become" means "come to be something." Regarding this, Rahner presents the traditional philosophy and theology as follows:




It affirms that the change and transition take place, in the created reality which is assumed, and not in the Logos. And so everything is clear: the Logos remains unchanged when it takes on something which as a created reality, is subject to change, including the fact of its being assumed. Hence all change and history, with all their tribulation, remain on this side of the absolute gulf which necessarily sunders the unchangeable God from the world of change and prevents them from mingling (113).

On the other hand, we believe that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. He did not dwell at a distance from us. We believe that Jesus of Nazareth, who is "like us in all things but sin" (Heb 4:15) is the Word of God and that he lived in Palestine. Therefore, Rahner presents the incarnation, which is the fundamental dogma of Christianity, by saying, "God can become something, he who is unchangeable in himself can himself become subject to change in something else" (Rahner, 113).

Since God is almighty as well as perfect freedom, he can choose to become less than he is. This is why we find it defined in the scriptures as "God is love" (1 Jn 4:16). It is out of pure love for the finite, "that he empties himself, gives away himself, poses the other as his own reality" (Rahner, 114).

God, who can remain unrelated chose to become related to the finite, the greater to the lesser. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord" (Is 55:8). We tend to think, according to our limited experiences, that things and people grow from a lower stage to a higher one. God on the contrary chose to become lower, lesser, which is a proof of his great love for his creatures.

At the same time, "he hides the majesty of this love and shows himself in the ordinary way of men" (Rahner 1975;152). In this way he expresses himself as love by his very being, as the son of a carpenter from Nazareth and as someone unjustly sentenced to death by the authorities of this world that he has created. Regarding this, we find the following scripture texts: "This is the carpenter's son, surely?" (Mt 13:55). "From Nazareth?" Nathaniel said, "Can anything good come from that place?" (Jn 2:46). "Let the Christ, the king of Israel, come down from the cross now, for us to see it and believe" (Mk 15:32). If Jesus had come down from the cross then, just to show his power, if he had lived his human life in pomp and splendor as a monarch, his life would not be the symbol of the Logos of God, the self-utterance of God, the self-emptying of God that expresses himself as great love.

In the incarnation, the humanity of Jesus is:




Something that comes to be and is constituted in essence and existence when and in so far as the Logos empties himself. This man is such, the self-utterance of God in its self-emptying, because God expresses himself when he empties himself (Rahner 1975:152).

This means that in the incarnation God utters his Word. He utters himself as love in his self-emptying and thus, expresses himself. The simple ordinary life of the incarnate God, Jesus of Nazareth, his self-surrender to his Father in every detail of his life, his passion and his death; in short, his whole life as a human being is this self-expression of God as love.

If Jesus as a human being were not the Word of God, his humanity would not reveal God. He could have been speaking about God like any other prophet. However, this is not the case with Jesus. He is "the self-revelation of God through who he is and not only through his words" (Dych, 78). The humanity of Jesus is the "real symbol" of God. Avery Dulles makes a distinction between "a representative symbol" and a "real symbol" (O’Donnell, 313). A representative symbol reminds one of a quality of a person or an event that is absent. On the other hand, in a real symbol, the reality of what is symbolized is really present and expresses itself. A lotus is a representative symbol of peace and tranquility. A flame is a real symbol of light and warmth and the symbolized light and warmth or heat is in the nature of a flame. In the same way, the physical body is the real symbol of the human soul, because the human soul can have no expression of itself except through the body. "Body and soul are really one, but in the differentiated unity of symbol and symbolized" (Dych, 79). Therefore, saints cannot be symbolized by sinners and neither can sinners be symbolized by saints.

Rahner sees the symbolic nature of reality in the inner Trinitarian life of God. The Father expresses himself in the Word; and his reality and his Spirit are symbolized by the Word. The Logos is the symbol of the Father and his Spirit. This inner relationship of the Trinity is exteriorized or expressed outwards in the event of the incarnation. The Word of God is expressed in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. "Thus the humanity of Jesus becomes the symbol of God in the world" (O’Donnell, 314). Otherwise, "there would be no way of finding out, from what God is to us, what he is in himself as the Trinity" (Dych, 150). One can have access to the symbolized only through the symbol. Since Jesus is the symbol of the Word of God, we can have access to God through him. Jesus himself has said, "He who sees me, sees the Father"(Jn 14:9).

Because Rahner presents the incarnation as the self-expression of God, G.A. McCool remarks that "far from being an anthropocentrism, Rahner's theological anthropology is theocentric and Trinitarian in its focus" (Rahner 1975:145). The divine distinctions in the Trinitarian God take place because God who is without origin expresses within himself. The self-expression of God in the incarnation is the revelation of the "immanent self-expression of God in its eternal fullness" (Rahner 1975:145). In other words, the incarnation is the revelation of God's inner nature. What happens eternally within the Trinitarian God is expressed outwards in the incarnation as "the outward expression of his immanent Word" (Rahner 1978:223). The Logos with God is the same as the Logos with us. In other words, "the role of the Logos in salvation history as the Word and expression of God follows from and reveals his eternal reality as the inner Trinitarian expression of the Father" (Dych, 150).

"In Rahner's vision, ...creation and incarnation are two phases of the one process of God's self-giving and self-expression" (O’Donnell, 311). At creation, God establishes creatures as non-divine realities, as finite beings, as the "grammar of God's possible self-expression" (Dych, 77). Rahner sees creation as a "deficient mode of God's self-expression" (O’Donnell, 3110) since the offer of God himself as a gift, as grace is open to all of creation. But creation is only the reflection of God's being in what is other than himself. At the incarnation, God himself wants to become the finite other that has come from him, in order to open for the finite the way to the infinite, to unite the infinite and the finite. So, he empties himself, "and therefore, of course, he himself is in the emptying," (Rahner 1978:222). This self-emptying of God outwards or the exteriorization of God to become finite human nature in the incarnation, is the self-expression of God as infinite love. In Rahner's own words, "God goes out of himself, he himself, as the self-giving fullness. Because this is his free and primary possibility, for this reason he is defined in scripture as love" (1978:222).

The Incarnation as the Self-Surrender of Jesus Christ

The mystery of the incarnation as we know is that the Word of God became flesh. "Man is what we are, what we experience every day" (Rahner 1966:107) but can we say that we understand ourselves fully and can define what we are? According to Karl Rahner, the human person is "an indefinability come to consciousness"(107) which means that in the process of evolution of creation the human person reaches a stage of human consciousness and freedom. In another place, Rahner's answer to the question, "What do we mean by man?" was, "Man is the question to which there is no answer" (Rahner 1980:17).

For Rahner, the word "man" represents all of us, creatures of God who are rational beings or rational animals. When we consider the word "rational," which the dictionary describes as "capable of reasoning," we find that it is nameless, boundless. The horizon of our reasonings and questionings is unlimited and boundless and this is because we seek to know the infinite God; we are trying to reach out to God whose horizon is boundless and unlimited. We may be able to discover more and more about human reality through personal experiences, something that we have not realized until then, in other words something "new" about ourselves unfolded at every stage; yet, we can never say that we understand fully our own existence as human beings; but find that "man in his totality and by his very nature is a mystery to himself" (Dych, 75). As already mentioned in the introduction, "man is therefore mystery in his essence, his nature" (Rahner 1966:106) since he was created by God and has his origin in the incomprehensible mystery, God. This incomprehensible, holy mystery cannot be experienced as an object. It is through human experiences that we experience the mystery of the infinite God.

Rahner states, "We are beings who are referred to the incomprehensible God" (1966:108). This reference to God is what makes us supernatural, transcendental. It is the characteristic of the human person, which is "a drive to personal union with the Infinite mystery" (Rahner 1975:145). In Rahner's way of describing the spiritual nature of the human being, "spirit is not a ‘substance’ however subtle, but the activity of ‘transcendence’ of reaching out" (Macquerrie 1990:307). This explains why "the human knower as ‘transcendental’ is driven on relentlessly from one question to another, from one horizon of knowledge to another without ever coming to a stop" (Macquerrie 1990:109). The human, being a finite creature is forever moving towards an infinite horizon, towards its infinite creator, God.

The human person, the indefinable nature, with an unlimited reference to the incomprehensible mystery was assumed by God as his own reality, in the incarnation. This is what we in our transcendence have been trying to reach out for, a personal union with the divine. By the incarnation of the Word of God, human nature "simply arrived at, the point to which it always strives by virtue of its essence" (Rahner 1966:109). Regarding this, Rahner's own words are:




If this indefinable nature, whose limit, that is, its ‘definition,’ is this unlimited orientation towards the infinite mystery of fullness, is assumed by God, as his own reality, then it has reached the very point towards which it is always moving by virtue of its essence. It is its very meaning,… to be given away and to be handed over, to be that being who realizes himself and finds himself by losing himself once and for all in the incomprehensible (Dych, 76).

The incarnate Word of God, as Jesus of Nazareth, through his life, passion and death, surrenders himself to God so much so that his "human nature which surrenders itself to the mystery of the fullness (God), belongs so little to itself that it becomes the nature of God himself" (Rahner 1966:109-100). Therefore, to attain a personal union with the divine, the human being has to empty himself/herself, surrender into the hands of God, as Jesus did. The more we give of ourselves to God, the more we become his, which means, human nature totally given to God becomes God's human nature.

In Christ, the divine and the human do not contradict each other. The humanity of Christ is so oriented towards the divine "that he is utterly given over to God and utterly taken over by God" (Kilby, 19). Thus, instead of a contradiction, there is a perfect unity in Christ, between the human and the divine. Christ's perfect conformity to the will of God, his forever "yes" to his Father, makes this unity possible, to be fully human and fully divine. From the life of Christ, we can see that this union "has happened and happens eternally" (Rahner 1966:111) only in him. The rest of us human beings find it difficult to abandon ourselves and to surrender ourselves completely into the hands of God.

It is true that "what" we are as human beings and, "what" Christ assumed in the incarnation is the same human nature. "But the unbridgeable difference is that in his case the "what" is uttered as his self-expression, which is not, in our case" (1966:116). Christ, as the Word of God knows the Father and "he knew that only the Father knows his mystery" (1966:116) so he could entrust himself completely into the hands of his Father. This does not mean that as a human being Jesus had perfect knowledge of the Father. Rahner says, "...the ignorance of Jesus, for which there is ample evidence in Scripture, does not point to a deficiency, but rather to a positive merit in his acceptance of this ignorance" (Dych, 23-4).

The human life of Jesus portrayed in the gospels is a life of faith, hope and love. Each of these aspects indicates the movement of "letting go of the self" in order to "let God be God." It is the process of self-transcendence, the process of losing oneself or one's life in order to find it anew. Jesus accepted the mystery of his humanity and the incomprehensibility of God. "It is just the question about the mystery utterly given over to the mystery" (Rahner 1966:111). That was why the words that Jesus uttered as the last words of his life were, "Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit" (Lk 23:46).

Here, we can say with Rahner that "the incarnation of God is therefore the unique, supreme case of the total actualization of human reality, which consists of the fact that man is in so far as he gives himself up" (1966:110). Christ is unique but because he has become flesh, a human being, he is related to the rest of us, human beings. Through Christ, the human reality has achieved its union with the divine. The finite and the infinite are no longer in opposition because the infinite has become finite in the incarnate God and has opened for the whole of the finite "a passage into the infinte" (Rahner 1978:226). In the incarnation, Christ has given us the way to union with God through total self-surrender of the human into the divine.

The Mystery of the Incarnation according to Hans Urs von Balthasar

Hans Urs von Balthasar was one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, a contemporary to Karl Rahner although their theological styles were different. Balthasar was born in 1905 at Lucerne, a picturesque lakeside city in Switzerland. It is no wonder that Balthasar was a lover of nature and beauty. He was a lover of art and his "childhood and youth were dominated by an obsession with music." When Balthasar started his theological studies as a Jesuit, "the theological landscape in which he was made to wander" (Nichols 1998:xii)was rather dreary to him. So he tried to find a different theological landscape by doing theological aesthetics and dramatics. An artist tries to reveal or express a special meaning that is beautiful to the observers, through his work, whether it be of music, painting or drama. Therefore, for Balthasar,




The revelation which Christian theology set itself to study was the disclosure of a beauty beyond all worldly beauty in the supreme artwork of Jesus Christ; in it the transcendent beauty—in biblical language, the glory of the ever greater God came to expression. (Nichols, xiii).

"Let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves" (Gen 1:26). God, the Master artist intends to form, to shape us into his image. God's aesthetic "forming," his divine art receives our cooperation "only when man refrains from resisting the Potter's hand" (Nichols 1998:6).

Having free will, we can refuse to cooperate with God. The work of God's hands or God's artwork has been partly successful in the lives of the saints of the Old Testament. The likeness of God can be seen in the holiness of the saints, though not in its perfection. Its quality rose on an ascending scale till it reached Mary, the perfect woman who gave birth to the God-man, Jesus Christ. God's artwork comes out perfectly, as intended, in Jesus Christ who "is the image of the unseen God" (Col 1:15). The Christmas Preface of the Roman rite, which has its origin in the theological doctrine of the Roman Pope Leo the Great of the fifth century expresses this theme beautifully as follows:




In the wonder of the Incarnation your eternal Word has brought to the eyes of faith a new and radiant vision of your glory. In him we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see.1

In the above Preface, we find that the image that is made visible in the incarnation arouses love for the God who is unseen. For Balthasar, "aesthetics and dramatics are interrelated essentially" (Nichols 2000:4). He believes that something beautiful or someone beautiful not in the sense of pretty-pretty, but one who lives a life that is love-worthy, whose very being is attractive to those who encounter her/him, "calls forth a grateful response" (2000:4) from the one who encounters. It will be a response such as words of praise or thanksgiving for what has been perceived or a response that results in the transformation of the life of the perceiver, who starts to imitate the life of the beautiful, good and true. Seeing the form is followed by action and therefore, we can say aesthetics are followed by dramatics. "The beauty of visual art opens up, in this sense, a dramatic icon" (2000:3). The same idea would apply to Mary and the saints. On the contrary, "one who encounters the beautiful as such is challenged to accept a mission to proclaim what is beautiful, good and true, a mission of communication, each unique and universal …the more unique, the more universal" (2000:6).

In Balthasar's theological aesthetics, Jesus Christ far from being the icon to be contemplated in a passive way, is on the contrary, "the Beautiful, graciously manifesting itself, (and) becomes the incarnated Word, electing those to whom it can communicate itself" (Balthasar 1980:33). It is not enough for those who have been elected just to proclaim what they have encountered, the beautiful, good and true, Jesus Christ. They must also fashion their own lifestyles after that of Christ if they wish others to encounter the beautiful, good and true in their turn.




Neither faith, contemplation nor kerygma can dispense us from action. And the libretto of God's saving drama which we call Holy Scripture is worthless in itself unless, in the Holy Spirit it is constantly mediating the drama beyond and the drama here (Nichols 2000:7).

For Balthasar, "the main agents involved in the production of theo- drama," (Nichols 2000:65) are God, the human person and the God-man. On the world stage, God is the "One responsible for the play" (2000:65). We are on the same world stage with God, endowed with freedom to act appropriately or inappropriately. When we act inappropriately, God is not responsible for our action since we are free. So, there are tensions and conflicts on the world stage, between two freedoms, God and human persons performing the story of salvation. To redeem the situation so that there may be harmony, the Son of God emptied himself and thus became God-Man, got on to the world stage as the Mediator to reconcile the two freedoms in opposition. In getting between the two, the God-Man was hurt, crucified, and broken, simply torn asunder.

Paradoxically, the best part of the drama happens to be here. The beautiful, good and true was seen in this scene of the brokenness of the God-Man and there was a response from both sides of the two freedoms on the stage. The wrath of God was appeased once and for all and the conversion of human beings was brought about in proportion to the favorable dispositions of the individuals.

Balthasar dramatizes the story of salvation and thus presents the Mystery of the incarnation as kenosis and also as Christ being in solidarity with humanity to the point of being with human beings even in hell.

The Incarnation as Kenosis

Kenosis, self-giving or self-emptying is the inner nature of the Triune God. Balthasar writes, "The ultimate presupposition of the kenosis is the ‘selflessness’ of the persons in the intra Trinitarian life of love" (Balthasar 1969:153). Balthasar sees God as a relational being of giving and receiving. In the inner life of the Trinity, none of the three divine persons is possessive of the Godhead nor clings to it. John Saward explains this as follows:




The Father does not hug the Godhead to himself but, by eternal generation, lavishes it upon the consubstantial Son, who receives it with a response of grateful, Eucharistic love. And Father and Son do not clasp the divine essence but communicate it, without remainder, to the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from their mutual breath of love. In all this giving and receiving, there is no "before" or "after," no "greater" or "less." 'The Father does not exist "before" he gives himself. He is this self-movement (1990:28-9).

The Divine Trinity is a community of selfless, self-emptied persons existing co-substantially. To put it simply, "God is Love" (1 Jn 4:16), a kenotic love. It is simply being God to be love, to be self-giving, self-emptying. He does not lose anything in giving because to be self-giving is to be Godself. According to Balthasar, the inward self-emptying or the inward kenosis of the Divine Trinity is expressed outwards for the first time in creation. "Creation is therefore an act of breathtakingly disinterested love. It is we might add, an act of ‘unclinging’ kenotic love" (Saward, 31). Through this act of creation, God discloses or reveals the inner kenotic life of love of the Divine Trinity. Balthasar writes in his Theodramatik II:




The life of the Trinity is an eternally self-fulfilled circle, which does not need the world... The act of creation has its source in the freedom of the Trinity; it is a "selfless" sharing of life of blessed selflessness with needy creatures (1978:264).

The kenosis of God in creation is purely voluntary. It is simply the overflowing of the goodness and love of God. God, being the source of goodness and love, is overflowing without getting exhausted. God's goodness is forever pouring out, emptying itself out without getting emptied. This is what happens eternally within the uncreated inner life of the Divine Trinity. God discloses or reveals God’s inner Triune life in creating the world. Creation is the first flowing outwards of the divine goodness and God saw that his creation was "very good" (Gen 1:31).

God created a world of finite freedom and rational creatures who are freely and distinctly themselves. In a creaturely way, they share "the Son's role within the Godhead as expression of the Father" (Saward, 32). Being freedom, the finite creature can accept or reject to be the expression of God, the expression of love and goodness. The finite creature in the first man Adam misused his freedom and his "creaturely difference becomes a sinful distance from God" (Saward, 32). In God, there is always space for another as there are three in One God. The Divine Trinity being a unity in diversity can include the finite creature's difference within the Trinity even if the creature distances himself from God. Balthasar writes,




The divine act (of generation) which produces the Son establishes an absolute infinite distance, within which all other possible distances, as they may emerge within the finite world, including sin are enclosed and encircled (1980:301).

God, who is love, goodness and compassion, sends his Son to seek those who have distanced themselves from God by sin and are lost in the created finite world, as they share the Son's role as the expression of the Father, in order that they may become sons and daughters in the Divine Son. It is here that the Supra-Kenosis takes place. As the essence of the Divine Trinity is self-emptying and unclinging, the Son of God did not "cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself, to assume the condition of a slave"(Phil 2:6-7) and became incarnate, became human flesh, as Jesus Christ. The incarnational kenosis is not exactly the same as the Trinitarian kenosis because the incarnation is "the assumption of a passible and mortal nature by the Son" (Saward, 28). While in the Trinity, it is "the immanent giving and receiving of the impassible and immortal divine nature" (Saward, 28). As a human person Christ is less than the Father and he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, "even to accepting death on a cross" (Phil. -2:8).

The Word of God who is the self-expression of the Father is the revelation of the Father and, according to Balthasar, the supreme expression of this revelation is made on the cross. On the cross, the Son identified himself with sinful humankind and suffered vicariously for sinners. Since sin is the opposite of God, Christ suffered God-forsakeness that is a contradiction to himself as God; but this was made possible by the Spirit of love. Having taken the sin of the world on himself and suffered vicariously for sinners, Christ the incarnate God offered himself back to the Father in union with humanity. The Father accepts the offering of his Son who has expressed such kenotic love. The giving and receiving pattern of the Trinity is expressed here. Balthasar writes:




Only when the mystery of divine love has been disclosed in Jesus Christ, do we have the right to conclude that God could do what in fact he really did do, that his abasement and dispossession do not contradict his own essence, but—in an unsuspected way—were in complete harmony with it (1975:200).

According to Balthasar's theological aesthetics, the beautiful, good and true are manifested in the scenes of weakness in the drama of salvation: the birth of the Savior in a lowly cave at Bethlehem and the suffering and death of the Savior on the cross at Calvary. These are the scenes that arouse love and admiration in the onlookers and call for a challenge to accept a mission to proclaim the Savior. Paradoxically, "grandeur is manifested in lowliness without being degraded by it."2 The greatness and glory of God is made manifest in kenosis, in God's total selflessness in becoming a finite creature, going through every humiliation, suffering and death in the incarnation of the Son of God.

The Incarnation as being in Solidarity with Humanity

In the incarnation, Jesus Christ, the Son of God assumes human nature and goes through every stage of human existence. He started his human life in the womb of his Virgin Mother; he was born of her and lived the life of a human being like any of us "like us in all things but sin" (Heb 4:15), and except that he is the incarnate God. From the womb to the tomb, Jesus shared the experience of life and death with humanity. In other words, he was in solidarity with humanity in all their struggles of human existence. Regarding Jesus' solidarity with humanity, Balthasar writes:




This absolutely unique Man... is unique precisely because he is God. And for this and for no other reason, he can give a share in his once-for-all cross to his fellow human beings, with whom he is in deeper solidarity than any man could ever be with another. He can give them, in other words, a share in his death, where every man otherwise is absolutely alone (1969:224f).

Jesus is a human being like us and yet his humanity is unique because he is God at the same time. Precisely because he is the God-Man, he is able to be in deepest solidarity with humanity in life and in death. No one else can be in such solidarity with his fellow human beings as Jesus. No other human being can suffer as much as Christ did in taking away the sins of the world. Because he is God as well as a human being, Jesus could share his death with human beings who usually die alone, separated from everyone else. With Christ, although he dies a truly human death with his soul and body separated, but "neither is separated from the divine hypostasis of the Word" (Saward, 112). In his incarnation, Jesus is in solidarity with humanity not only in their dying but in their state as dead. In order to share all the disabilities of sinful humanity, "his body lies in the tomb, his soul descends into bell, so that in both ways he might be like his brethren..." (Saward, 113) so that there is no human experience however painful, that he has not experienced, that he does not understand. He is the One who can abide with us in life and in death.

Balthasar extends Karl Barth's use of the parable of the Prodigal Son (CD IV/2, p. 23) to illustrate how Jesus the Elder Brother of the prodigal son was sent to go and seek his brother who was lost, in order to bring back what was lost to the Father. Initially, Barth uses this variation of the parable to illustrate the incarnation and redemption as the double movement, outwards and return, as an expression of the giving and receiving that takes place within the Divine Trinity. The Father sends his Son into the far country to go after the lost son. The son returns to the Father bringing with him humanity, his once lost brother but now found, reconciled and redeemed.

As Balthasar's theology is aesthetic and dramatic, he uses Barth's version of the prodigal son as a drama to highlight the descent into hell. In doing so, he brings out the importance of this article of the Creed that is not even included in the Nicene Creed. Balthasar asks himself the question, how far does the Son of God go in search of the lost son? His answer is: As far as the place of godlessness, hell, the place for those human beings who have rejected God, said "No" to God. The Son of God, in his search for the lost son, went through every possible pain and suffering that a human being could encounter in her/his life time and even more. His greatest suffering was the separation from the Father he loves, his being forsaken by his Father as he identified himself with sinful humanity, a contradiction to God, God against God, God becoming godless. In this respect, Christ suffered more than any other human being could suffer. It was almost an impossibility that was made possible by the Spirit, who accompanied him there to hell, to the place of godlessness.

Balthasar's reflections on Christ's descent into hell are based on the experiences of Adrienne von Speyr. Adrienne was a convert to the Christian faith. She was a mystic who experienced God as the One who suffered greatly, out of love for his creatures. She was granted the privilege to share in the vicarious sufferings of Christ during holy week. Adrienne gave detailed accounts of her experiences to von Balthasar who became convinced that her experiences were a special revelation from God. Balthasar outlines the main theme of Adrienne's descriptions as follows:




It is Christ's final act of obedience towards his Father that he descends into hell, ... the place where God is absent ... It is filled with the reality of all the world's godlessness with the sum of the world's sin; therefore, with precisely all that from which the Crucified has freed the world. In hell he encounters his own work of salvation not in Easter triumph, but in the uttermost night of obedience, truly the "obedience of a corpse." While bereft of any spiritual light emanating from the Father, in sheer obedience, he must seek the Father where he cannot find him under any circumstance. Hell seen in this way, is, in its final possibility, a Trinitarian event (1982:65-6).

Adrienne experienced hell, not as the place of fiery torments but as "the knowledge of having lost God forever, ... the chaotic mire of the anti-divine, the absence of faith, hope and love" (Balthasar 1982:67). Inspired by Adrienne's mystical experiences, Balthasar began to see the importance of Holy Saturday when Christ was in hell with the godless, being in solidarity with them so that through him, they may be saved.

Christ, while being in passive solidarity with the dead in hell, was at the same time united with his Father in will, in love and in the Spirit since he was there in obedience to his Father, the obedience of a corpse.

Here, obedience does not indicate domination and subservience because "the inner life of the blessed Trinity is coequal love, not domination and subservience" (Balthasar 1980a:39f). For Christ, being obedient to his Father is doing the will of God which in reality is his will, since he is God. From all eternity, God the Son is willing to assume human nature and save humankind. Having assumed a human nature including a human will, the Son of God expresses his love for the Father through human obedience "even to accepting death, death on a cross" (Phil 2:8) and more than that, according to Balthasar, through the obedience of a corpse in hell. Through the incarnation, the Son of God came to reveal God the Father to humanity and to save what was lost of humankind. Hell was where the lost were and the dead Christ went there to save the lost. According to Adrienne, Christ's descent into hell "is the ultimate consequence of the Incarnation" (Speyr 1966:79).

Considering Balthasar's theological dramatics, the descent into hell is the scene that brings out strongly the sense of identification and solidarity by the God-Man, Jesus Christ. He came into this world to be in solidarity with humanity and identified himself with the lost son, God with the godless, thus manifesting his kenotic love by enduring total opposition to his Godself. This is the scene that would captivate the human heart and transform it, challenging it to a mission. Regarding this J.R. Sachs writes:




God in the visage of the crucified Son, may have ways of moving the most obdurate human will, not in a way which would deny or overrun human freedom by force, but could in weakness persuade and compel "in his solidarity from within with those who reject all solidarity" (Balthasar 1982a:15).

Here, Christ's identification with humanity, his solidarity with human beings reaches the limit of its boundaries, where no one can possibly be left out. "It is Christ's solidarity with all sinners that requires Christian hope to be universal in scope" (Sachs 1991:2430). Saward writes, "The purpose of the incarnation was to seek and save the lost, weakened and wounded Adam. Hell is where the search ended" (113). There was nowhere else for Christ to go beyond that. There, in hell, Christ identified himself with the "weakened and wounded Adam," in other words, he identified himself with a dead man. He was speechless and powerless, lying there in solidarity with the dead, accompanying those in hell as the "silent Word of God."

According to Balthasar's aesthetics, the beautiful, good and true are experienced behind this portrait, behind this form of a corpse. In a wordless way, a great kenotic love is expressed very powerfully. Paradoxically, this silent Word of God speaks to the sinners more eloquently than any other word could speak. The wordless presence of the powerless love of the omnipotent God, his solidarity with the dead and powerless is enough to melt the heart of any hardened sinner. The psalmist had prophesied this Christ event, this extreme limit of Christ's solidarity with humanity in the psalm: "If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there"(Ps 139:8).


Karl Rahner has contributed to contemporary theology, the mystery of the incarnation as the successful event of God's self-communication through the perfect obedience or the total self-surrender of the incarnate God, Jesus Christ. The nature of God being self-giving, God started to make the offer of this self-gift at creation. Therefore, creation with all its spiritual and material creatures is related to God, oriented towards God and as a result is transcendental. The human being, the finite creature of God reaches out to God in transcendence, seeking to be united with the Creator. This union of the creature and the Creator became a success in the incarnation, when Christ revealed that the way to success in uniting the human and the divine is to surrender the human will to the Divine Will.

For Rahner, creation is oriented to becoming divinized, becoming one with God and so we must try and unify the human and the divine and not split the two asunder. If we divide, we suffer an inner contradiction, going against God that is sin. In the incarnation, what Christ has taught us is a total acceptance of God's self-gift and a total self-surrender of the human will.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, through his theological aesthetics and dramatics has helped us to see the incarnation as the masterpiece of God's art through which the beauty of the kenotic love of God is expressed. The primal kenosis takes place eternally in the nature of God as the Divine Trinity, self-giving towards one another. In the mystery of the incarnation, the supra kenosis takes place. The incarnate Logos is sent to identify himself with his lost brother, sent to become the brother of the very least and the lost. The Logos underwent the greatest humiliation, first of all by taking the nature of a sinful creature. He lived a simple, humble life and suffered vicariously for the sins of humankind through his passion, his death on the cross and his descent into hell, the place of the godless, so that his identification and his solidarity with humanity might reach their furthest extent.

In the incarnation, in the drama of the supra kenosis, the scenes of the passion, crucifixion and the descent into hell express vividly and strongly, the kenotic, self-emptying love of God, which goes so far as to be in solidarity with human beings in hell, the place of the godless. According to Balthasar, the beautiful, good and true that we encounter through the scenes of the incarnation must challenge us to action, to walk in the footsteps of the incarnate God, so that others too may encounter the beautiful, good and true, Jesus Christ, the incarnate God and the kenotic love of the Triune God expressed through him. This has taught us love—that He gave up His life for us; and we, too, ought to give up our lives for our brothers (1 Jn 3:16).

To sum up, for Rahner, the mystery of the incarnation is the event in which God's self-communication to humanity became a success through the total acceptance of God's gift and the total surrender of the human will by the Incarnate God, Jesus Christ. For Balthasar, the mystery of the incarnation is the event when God sent his Son to identify himself with lost humanity and to be in solidarity with humanity even in hell, so that he could gather back what was lost and could offer humanity back to his Father in union with Himself. The Incarnate God carried out this task through his Supra Kenosis. In conclusion one would state that the mystery of the incarnation is the revelation of God’s kenotic love.


1. "Preface of Christmas, I," The Roman Missal (Alcester and Dublin 1975), p. 406.

2. Oratio Catechetica, p. 24 as quoted by Saward 1990:34.


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