Advent with Barth: The Miraculous Mystery

Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2018

Are the signs of which the biblical witness to revelation speaks arbitrarily selected and given?

Is the outward part, in which according to this witness the inward part of revelation is brought to ear and eye, merely and accidental expression of the inward?

From what standpoint will we really want to establish this point, if we are clear that revelation is something else than the manifestation of an idea?

But if we cannot establish it, how can we really want to achieve this abstraction, holding to the thing signified but not to the sign unless we freely choose to do so? 

When we do this, is it not the case that openly or tacitly we have in mind something quite different? 

This is the question we have to put to ourselves even in regard to the Virgin birth.

Ultimately, the only question that we can ask here, but we very definitely have to ask it, is this: When two theologians with apparently the same conviction confess the mystery of Christmas, do they mean the same thing by that mystery, if one acknowledges and confesses the Virgin birth to be the sign of the mystery while the other denies it as a mere externality or is ready to leave it an open question?

Does the second man really acknowledge and confess that in His revelation to us and in our reconciliation to Him, to our measureless astonishment and in measureless hiddenness the initiative is wholly with God?

Or does he not by his denial or declared indifference towards the sign of the Virgin birth at the same time betray the fact that with regard to the thing signified by this sign he means something quite different? 

May it not be the case that the only one who hears the witness of the thing is the one who keeps to the sign by which the witness has actually signified it?

According to the dogma the mystery of revelation is described as the occurrence of a miracle, “miracle” taken in the special concrete sense, not in the general on just mentioned above.

At this stage, we do not inquire into its special content: conceptus de Spiritu sancto, natus ex Maria virgine (conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary).

We merely make the point that by these assertions is meant an event occurring in the realm of the creaturely world in the full sense of the word, and so in the unity of the psychical with the physical, in time and in space, in noetic (mental) and ontic (physical) reality.

It cannot be understood out of continuity with the rest that occurs in this world, nor is it in fact grounded in this continuity.

It is so unusual an event that it may be misunderstood subjectively as an error, illusion, poetry or symbol, or objectively as a creaturely mystery unexplained to begin with but explicable in principle.

It can be properly understood, however, only as a sign wrought by God Himself, and by God Himself solely and directly, the sign of the freedom and immediacy, the mystery of His action, as a preliminary sign of the coming of His Kingdom.

This is because in itself it really is nothing other than such a sign.

A sign must, of course, signify.

To do so it must have in itself something of the kind of thing it signifies; it must be in analogy with it noetically (mentally) and ontically (physically).

In this respect the miracle of Christmas is in analogy with what it signifies, the mystery of Christmas.

But it also consists in the fact that amid the continuity of the creaturely world, yet independently of it, both as regards our understanding of His action and as regards His action itself, God Himself has the initiative.

from Karl Barth, “The Miracle of Christmas”, Church Dogmatics I.2, page 179-182

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