Monday, November 30, 2015

Alfred Delp on the Meaning of Advent (and Life)

On 28 July 1944 the German Jesuit Alfred Delp was arrested by the Nazis for his links to the German Resistance movement, some members of which had just attempted to assassinate Hitler in the July 20 plot. While in prison, he kept a diary and wrote reflections, most notably on Advent and Christmas.

In his sermon for the First Sunday of Advent, Delp points out that even if humanity did not need salvation from sin, our own longing for transcendent fulfillment would exceed anything of which we are capable on our own and thus we would still need God. But this is not our circumstance, for the world is clearly torn by sin and violence in countless forms.

Amidst our frustrations and suffering, Delp reminds us that our longing for something better is not simply a self-diagnosis of our problem, a reminder of what we do not have, but - in the mystery of God - this longing itself brings us closer to God, who is our fulfillment. But he warns us: "To try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion" by our own efforts is folly. God accomplishes this work. Moreover, we can neither hurry the process nor postpone it "to suit our convenience." It must happen in God's time.

Here is the full text. If the tone is heavy, it is because Delp beheld his nation on the verge of destruction, itself the author of horrendous bloodletting, while his own fate was unknown, as he awaited trial. But amidst such gloom, he also saw hope.

Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of, as well as at the failing of humanity as a whole, we cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction two things much be accepted unreservedly.

First, that life is both powerless and futile in so far as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment.

Secondly, it must be recognized that it is God's alliance with humanity, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement toward fulfillment. But this also means that in this progress toward fulfillment humanity is vulnerable; we are perpetually moving toward, and are capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.

While time lasts there can be no end to it all and to try to bring the quest to an ultimate conclusion is one of the illusory temptations to which human nature is exposed. In fact hunger and thirst and wandering in the wilderness and perpetual rescue by a sort of life-line are all part of the ordinary hazards of human existence.

God's promises are given to meet and deal with all these contingencies - not merely to satisfy human arrogance and conceit. All we have to rely on is the fact that these promises have been given and that they will be kept. We are bound to depend on them - "the truth shall set you free." That is the ultimate theme of life. All else is mere explanation, compromise, application, and then to get away from ourselves, back to him. Any attempt to live by other principles is bound to fail - it is a living lie. This is the mistake we have made as a race and as a nation and are now paying for so bitterly. We have committed an unpardonable sin against our own being and the only way to correct it is through an existential reverse - back again to truth.

But this reverse, this return, must be made now.

The threatening dangers of our sins. Recognizing the truth of existence and loosening the stranglehold of this error are not matters that can be postponed to suit our convenience. They call for immediate action because untruth is both dangerous and destructive. It has already rent our souls, destroyed our people, laid waste our land and our cities; it has already caused another generation to bleed to death.

None that wait on thee shall be confounded. We must recognize and acknowledge the hunger and thirst for satisfaction outside ourselves. After all it is not a case of waiting for something that may not happen. We have the comforting assurance of all those who wait knowing that the one they expect is already on the way.

If we are terrified by the dawning realization of our true condition, that error is completely calmed by the certain knowledge that God is on the way and actually approaching. Our fate, no matter how much it may be entwined with the inescapable logic of circumstance, is still nothing more than the way to God, the way the Lord has chosen for the ultimate consummation of his purpose, for his permanent ends. Lift up your heads because your redemption is at hand.

Just as falsehood entered the world through the heart and destroyed it, so truth begins its healing work there.

Light the candles quietly, such candles as you possess, wherever you are. They are the appropriate symbol for all that must happen in Advent if we are to live.
From Alfred Delp, SJ: Prison Writings, with introduction by Thomas Merton (Orbis, 2004), pp. 22-24.
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