Advent is the season of hope and reflection. It is a time of prayerful expectation for Christians who await the Second Coming of the Lord, just as they celebrate his birth at Christmas. Many, however, do not really appreciate its significance, or see Advent as a dramatic call upon their lives.
One man who did was Fr. Alfred Delp.
A German Jesuit who joined the anti-Nazi Resistance, he was arrested and executed for his activities in 1945. Though not as well known as other martyrs, the writings he left behind are among the most moving in Christian literature. Ignatius Press has published a book, Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings , which collects Delps writings during the lead-up to his arrest and six months in prison. Most of them, as the title indicates, have to do with Advent, which Delp believed to be central to the Christian life.
Five themes stand out in Fr. Delps meditations: the immediacy of the Incarnation, the powerlessness of man when apart from God, the trembling nature of conversion, the importance of Christian witness, and the knowledge that we are not alone in the world if we walk with God.
As we near the end of Advent, and reflect upon what it means for our own lives, Fr. Delps meditations have much to teach us.
When he writes about the reality of the Incarnation, Delp has a way of cutting through the externals of life, and getting right to the heart of things:
Christmas has always been subject to many misunderstandings. Superficialities, taking refuge in familiarity, idyllic playing around with Nativity scenes, and so forth, have displaced our view from the tremendous event this holy day represents . . . .One must take care to celebrate Christmas with a great realism . . . .One should bear in mind that we are celebrating the feast of God becoming man . . . .That is how man must understand it. It is the incomprehensible fact of God entering into history; that He stepped into our law, into our space, into our existence”and not only like one of us, but as one of us. That is the thrill and the incomprehensibility of this event.
With the Incarnation, Christ enters history and becomes its master, continues Delp, and precisely because of that, makes himself available to us everywhere:
History now becomes the Sons mode of existence; historical destiny becomes His destiny. He is to be encountered on our streets. In the darkest cellars and the loneliest prisons of life, we will meet Him. And that is already the first blessing and consecration of the burden: that He is to be met under its weight.
Mankind is hopeless without God; and Advent reminds us of our powerlessness:
By ourselves and with our own strength alone, we will not manage . . . . The theological principle that a man, by his own strength, cannot even sustain the basic ethical level of natural principles is the rationale for the misery that we are living through today.
At the same time, writes Delp, Advent can lead us out of the dark, if we recognize our helplessness:
The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not first experienced being terrified unto death about himself and his human prospects and likewise what is revealed within himself about the situation and constitution of mankind in general.
This entire message about Gods coming, about the Day of Salvation, about redemption drawing near, will be merely divine game-playing or sentimental lyricism unless it is grounded upon two clear findings of fact.
The first finding: insight into, and alarm over the powerlessness and futility of human life in relation to its ultimate meaning and fulfillment . . . The second finding: the promise of God to be on our side, to come to meet us.
Human life, he continues, always has an Advent dimension, namely, lack of fulfillment, and promise, and movement . . . .Therefore there is no interim finality, and the attempt to create final conclusions is an old temptation of mankind. Hunger and thirst, and desert journeying, and the survival teamwork of mountaineers on a rope”these are the truth of our human condition.
After citing the Gospel of John”the truth will make you free”Delp uncovers its meaning:
Truth is the essential theme of life. Everything else is only expression, result, application, consequence, testing, and practice. May God help us to wake up to ourselves and in doing so, to move from ourselves toward Him.
Every temptation to live according to other conditions is a deception. Our participation in this existential lie is really the sin for which we today”as individuals, as a generation, and as a continent”are so horribly doing penance. The way to salvation will be found only in an existential conversion and return to the truth.
Recognition of our powerlessness is part of the process of conversion. But true conversion, says Delp, is not a limp or tepid act; it is a profound transformation, a trembling and quaking”where Christ impinges upon our world, shattering it, demanding from us a radical yes or no:
We have become accustomed to the idea that what God asks of us, the great basic teachings of our lives, and the great responses required by God are somehow accessories”as if we can take them or leave them”as if they are just trinkets for those who choose to accept them. We have very often forgotten that the God of freedom”the God of grace and divine humanity”is a God who challenges us. God wants to be taken seriously, wants to be all, not just an accessory. He does not just leave it to chance whether we say Yes or No. A time comes where our refusal is refusing the fulfillment of our lives, because we have not taken God into account and have not dealt with the Lord God in discernment.
4. Once we become true disciples of Christ, we proclaim him, no matter how bleak the situation around us: We bear witness to the Light:
Therefore, deep down, we are the people who are comforted; and we are the last refuge for the homeless people who do not know anything about the Lord anymore . . . .May we impart the goodness. May we attend to humanity again, and witness to the Lordship of God again, and know of His grace and mercy . . . .may we go away from Christmas Eve with the consolation that we mean so much to God that no external distress can rob us of this ultimate consolation. Our hearts must become strong, to make the divine heartbeat into the law of life again.
Fr. Delp then explains what Advent and Christmas inspire:
That we petition Him, that He redeems us through the mystery, that we are rich and capable enough through Gods comfort to give mankind the comfort that it needs so much,that we go away from this celebration as the great comforters, as the great knowers, the great blessed ones who know what it means to be consoled by God.
5. Finally, insists Fr. Delp, we should always be joyful in anticipation of the glory that awaits us; we should persevere in this life, knowing that our faith in Christ is the indestructible fact that gives it meaning.
Even as he awaited his execution with hands shackled, Fr. Delp scribbled his last Advent mediations on scraps of paper. They are striking affirmations of his faith, which bore fruit in his suffering:
We should not avoid the burdens God gives us. They lead us into the blessing of God. To those who remain faithful to the ascetic and hard life, the interior springs of reality will be unsealed, and the world is not silent as we might have thought. The silver threads of Gods mysteries within everything that is real begin sparkling and singing. The burden is blessed, because it has been recognized and carried as a burden from God.
God becomes man. Man does not become God. The human order remains and continues to be our duty, but it is consecrated. And man has become something more, something mightier. Let us trust life because this night must lead to light. Let us trust life because we do not have to live it alone. God lives it with us.
(The preceding excerpts are from Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings - 1941“1944 by Fr. Alfred Delp and used with the permission of Ignatius Press.)
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine , among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. His annotated bibliography on Pius XII appears in The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington Books, 2004). His most recent articles for “On the Square” were Pius XII and the Distorting Ellipsis , Pope Benedict Confounds His Critics , and Singling Out Israel Isnt Christian .