Christmas in the Ignatian Exercises -- Karl Rahner

To try to say something about the mystery of Christmas in our time to people trained in theology, to speak of the real mystery of Christmas night—this might easily seem too difficult, especially since the interpretation of the scriptural texts today requires a knowledge of exegesis that only a few people can claim to have.[1] I'm just mentioning these difficulties, before, as a dogmatic theologian, embarking on what might seem a rather eccentric venture. I want to reflect upon and develop a connection between a typically Ignatian conviction at the basis of the Exercises and the mystery of Christmas. For perhaps this connection might be able to point us towards the mystery of this night in a quite new way, and illustrate a bit better its real Sitz im Leben. The attempt is a risky one, but I should like to make it all the same.


Jesuits will of course believe – and let us hope they are right – that they know what indifference in the Ignatian sense means.[2] And yet it would be good at the outset of this little reflection to make sure we know the precise meaning of this attitude, and to say clearly and briefly what this key idea in Ignatian piety amounts to.

One could well say that indifference is the same as what Paul calls the freedom conferred by the Spirit of God’s own self as regards all the particular powers and forces in our human existence, both in our inner life and in its outer setting. For ‘indifference’ expresses this same reality from the point of view of the person who is making decisions out of this freedom, while Paul’s biblical freedom is looking at it in terms of God’s liberating grace—it’s of God, giving Himself immediately, radicalizing our transcendental nature in Himself, and thus freeing us, both inwardly and outwardly, from every particular element in our existence to which we would otherwise (whether without fault or indeed with it) be subject and bound. Indifference and freedom—they are one and the same reality; they signify the infinite and open space in which God’s own self (not some finite substitute) becomes what is actually happening in our lived life. Of course, however, this is happening here still in a kind of vacuum, a darkness, being struck dumb, silent adoration of the mystery beyond speech which anonymously enfolds us within its infinity—it is not that it offers us a definite, particular place where we can make ourselves at home and take a comprehensive look at ourselves.


But what does it mean, this sort of freedom and indifference, this deathly reaching-out beyond the circle of our everyday that we can name and shape in freedom—this reaching-out into the darkness of God?[3] Whether or not we have actually managed to do this, whether the gift has really been conferred on us—complete security and certainty of knowledge about this is never something that our own reflection, our judgment about ourselves, can attain. No, such an event remains indeed only the content of a hope wavering within us.

But then aren’t we saying that in the quest for this experience we have become mystics of a pathless interiority, or Buddhists, for whom the world and history, individual action and responsibility, have dissolved? Shouldn’t this make us anything but Christians: anything but human beings knowing themselves to be sent on mission, people for whom particular action remains decisive?

Faced with such a question, we must invoke another basic reality in Ignatian spirituality. For Ignatius Loyola does not understand being indifferent, being free for God’s enormity, as simply just a home we have found and where we can stay—a home from which we never again have to return to the here and now of our everyday earthly life. On the contrary, it is an event that is happening in such a way as, without itself disappearing, to send us by its very nature back into the particular reality of our life: to a specific decision, to a specific action. And for Ignatius himself, it is not really happening, or getting beyond a mere mystical ideology, unless we too, over and over again, are letting ourselves be sent back in this way to our earthly, everyday reality. That is why for Ignatius being indifferent and being free are really happening only when people are coming to make, on the basis of this infinite freedom, an Ignatian election—a freedom which, when it is actually being experienced, he calls ‘consolation’. Here, against this backdrop, people let themselves be given something quite specific and particular in freedom: given as something sent them from the freedom of God. At the same time, however, this reality sent us must, without confusion or separation, be invested with that very absoluteness, that eternal divine validity and glory from which it has been sent.

Ignatian choice is thus the place where divine freedom, the ‘consolation’ of indifference and our earthly decision in freedom for something specific are happening together, in a union without separation or division. The mystery of this unity may well be something largely unexplained in Ignatius Loyola’s own practical logic of decision-making, an obscure problem for theologians and philosophers.[4] But it still seems to me that in Ignatius Loyola there is a recognition that this kind of union is possible, that it does happen. And this recognition makes us realize how one can and must be lost in indifference within the past-all-grapness of God, precisely in order to find the true reality of one’s own lived life, in the specific course of events that have happened. And conversely: this recognition makes us discover how this world and the beyond, history and transcendence, can bind themselves together in a union without confusion or separation. And this in such a way that God is found in all things—or, even better, in the particular ways and specificities enjoined on each person—without Himself thereby receding. But this event of infinite freedom occurs just when we in freedom are apprehending the specific, particular reality that God has provided for us, over and against other things that might have been possible—provided for us because the Absolute is uniting itself not with that non-absolute, but with just this one, bestowing on it Its own eternal validity. Indifference and the election of an individual reality are, for Ignatius, ultimately united in their distinction. Freedom becomes specific; specificity becomes free.


What I have just said can only hint at something—stutteringly, without any theological and philosophical precision. And we must ask a further question about it: what has all this got to do with the mystery of Christmas? We might put the answer like this. Christmas is the highest instance of this unity of transcendence and concrete freedom—a instance which is of course unique in time, unsurpassable, and a model. For Ignatius, this unity in our own experience opens up for us a basis for understanding what, according to Christian faith, has happened in the birth, the life, and the blessed death of Jesus of Nazareth.

By presenting the matter in these terms, it is not that we are dragging Jesus down to the level of our own existence. Rather, only by doing this can we clearly grasp that all human reality, in its unity of transcendence and historicity, is in potential for what theology conventionally calls the hypostatic union between God and a full, undiminished humanity. But if we can let the potentiality for this hypostatic union (which is what it is to be human) unfold, happen, and come to recognize itself as that mysterious union of indifferent freedom and specific decision—if we can do this, then we will be learning to understand what humanity is, and in my opinion will not be misguided in doing so.

But if so, there is present quite certainly a very particular access to the mystery of Christmas in the light of Ignatian spirituality. The formula of our confession, ‘the incarnation of the eternal Word of God in our flesh’, speaks a faith-language of the ‘ontological’, ‘substantial’ unity of the Word of God with the full humanity of Jesus, in unity and difference. We must not deny or play down any of this. It is merely that this very unity of God and humanity is reaching its goal, its ultimate reality, only when we think of it as something which is actually taking place: when, that is, the freedom of God, divinely descending and willing each particular thing in its finitude, is meeting the human freedom it sustains, and liberating this freedom for the absoluteness of God and for the obedient acceptance of that absoluteness. Thus God’s absoluteness is bestowing God’s freedom on the unique life-history of the individual.

Now, if all this is taking place in Jesus (as distinct from in us) in a measure that is full, unique and publicly manifest, then this event is also, of itself, a promise that has its effect on us. For this kind of unity is also happening, in the same way, within the sphere assigned to us. By no means is this anything to be taken for granted—we are experiencing what grace means: an act of God’s freedom towards us on which we have no claim. The convergence and the difference between Jesus and ourselves thus becomes clearly apparent—so much so, that we have here a special starting point for understanding Christmas.

These hints remain highly theoretical and fragmentary, especially with regard to their Christological content. Nevertheless we can really say this much: the practice of Ignatian indifference, the freedom which abandons itself willingly to the enormity of God and finds its home again in this specific existence uniquely given to every one of us—this freedom makes that unity which is without confusion or distinction grow within us. In that unity we then find God also in the triviality of our everyday life, without, however, becoming stuck in it. Not, of course, that we can then once again take hold of that unity and place it under our own control; but we can let it happen, let it take hold, let it die and then live. When that is happening, it’s Christmas. Christ is being born, and the mystery of this birth is taking hold of us, as our own salvation.

Karl Rahner, retranslated from Schriften zur Theologie, 12