Alfred Delp, a Jesuit priest executed in 1945 by the Nazi government he resisted, managed to secretly write and publish a reflection on Advent shortly before he was hanged. His thoughts on Christmas have an urgency to them, a poignancy imbued by his imprisonment and imminent death. On this, the 12th day of Christmas, and the close of the Christmas season, we would do well to look back on it in light of Delp’s words of insight and challenge concerning Advent.
He writes, “I have a new and different understanding of God’s promise of redemption and release,” in light of his manacled hands and small cell. Delp wrote from great personal uncertainty to an audience who felt as though the world were ending. The world was at war, and Delp suggests that this is a consequence of human hubris. When his audience surely felt that all they needed was solid ground, Delp resoundingly disagrees: “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up.” He argues that many of the horrors of the second world war “would never have happened if we had been living in that movement and disquiet of the heart which results when we are faced with God, the Lord, and when we look clearly at things as they really are.” Delp, somewhat shockingly, blames a false belief in human sufficiency to save ourselves and to order the world for the regime under which he died. He views the Advent message as just the sort of shaking up the world always needs. Christ’s advent in the world is an extreme enforcement of our insufficiency: God became human because we humans cannot save ourselves.
To further illumine this point, Delp turns his attention to “characters in whom the Advent message and the Advent blessing simply exist and live, [calling out to us and touching us to cheer and shake us, to console and to uplift us,”] and pinpoints these as available in three “types”: the Angel of the Annunciation, the Virgin Mary, and John the Baptist.
The Angel of Annunciation, both to Zechariah and to Mary, represents to Delp the persistant promises of God. Unlike the heavenly host that appeared at Christ’s birth, his conception (as well as the conception of John the Baptist) was announced only to one person, alone. Delp knows the importance in uncertain times of relying on “the promises that are spoken” of God’s coming deliverance. We look forward in hope to God’s Kingdom, we rely on the received promises of restoration and resurrection to make sense of a broken world – these promises we hold to “assure and set upright again” when we could easily succumb to despair or worry. Delp also reminds his readers that those are assured themselves by the promises of the gospel can act as announcing angels themselves, can share their assurance in a future hope.
To acknowledge our current misery is little help, Delp says, unless there is some connection between God’s powerful compassion and our powerful need. The bridging of that gap is dramatized in the figure of Mary. Delp emphasizes that we not only have promise of the resoration of the earth, but walking evidence of it: “that there could be a woman walking the earth whose whomb was consecrated to be the holy temple and tabernacle of God – this is actually earth’s perfection and the fulfillment of its expectations. We do not only live in the hope of prophecy, but in light of its fulfillment. As Mary waited, gestated, so we wait for completion; as Mary actually brought forth, so we rejoice in what has already come to pass.
Perhaps Delp’s least expected figure, but of central importance to his vision of Advent, is that of John the Baptist. “Woe to an age when the voices of those who cry in the wilderness have fallen silent[…]” declares Delp. Delp argues that there are certain individuals “struck by the lightning of mission and vocation” who “summon us to our last chance, while already they felt the ground quaking and the rafters creaking [….]” There are certain people who are more attune to the times, more sensitive to pernicious influences and subtle betrayals. Delp warns that “we must not shrink from or suppress the earnest words of these crying voices, so that those who today are our executioners will not tomorrow become accusers because we have remained silent.” We should seek out and listen to the voices that critique our complacency, lest we grow comfortable in our abilities and our blessings, and forget that, even at the Advent of Christ, we are in a perilous time. We must always choose the power of God over the power of the world, though God’s kingdom is one of inversion.
Though we know the world did not end during the second world war, it seemed to those in it as if it might. We are in a time of similar uncertainty now on the world stage, and though our desire may be to build up our own security and turn our thoughts to other things as the new year begins, Delp demands that we live always in anticipation of promises yet to be fulfilled in the world as it shall be, in rememberance of promises answered in the world as it is, and in light of the spiritual urgency of belief in these promises. Delp wishes us all, not a merry Christmas, but a shaking one. ‘