What a Martyred Priest Can Teach Us About Advent This Year

Celebrating Advent will be different this year, but Fr. Alfred Delp can teach us a few things about the holiday season.

One doesn’t usually inscribe Christmas cards with a quote from a man who is weeks away from being executed by Nazis in wartime Berlin. But we’ve been veering ever closer to the unexpected and surreal in 2020, and the Jesuit priest Alfred Delp has been on my mind as we realize that Advent and Christmas, too, will be different this year.

Father Delp was an intense, young priest whose passionate homilies drew the Gestapo to his Munich parish. Despite knowing he was under Nazi scrutiny, he was active in the German resistance movement, including aiding Jews fleeing the country. When an attempt at assassinating Hitler failed, these groups came under scrutiny and Father Delp landed in prison in Berlin in 1944.

Indefatigable even while handcuffed, Father Delp continued to write messages on slips of paper that were smuggled in and out with his laundry. While in prison, he celebrated Mass with bits of altar bread and wine, and even took his final vows as a Jesuit, which were witnessed by his own prison guard. He was hung on Feb. 2, 1945.

So when the imprisoned Father Delp wrote his last meditations on the Advent season, they were stripped of every ounce of sentimentality. Even his previous Advent homilies to his parish made clear that this was a time of apocalyptic expectation and the upending of a safe, unchallenged spiritual life. As bombs fell among his parishioners’ homes, he vividly painted our longing for light and goodness against the real knowledge of the terror of the night.

And he wrote, urgently, of Advent being a season meant to shake us to the core:

The shaking, the awakening: with these, life merely begins to become capable of Advent. It is precisely in the severity of this awakening, in the helplessness of coming to consciousness, in the wretchedness of experiencing our limitations that the golden threads running between heaven and earth during this season reach us; the threads that give the world a hint of the abundance to which it is called, the abundance to which it is capable.

Can the violent overthrow of expectations — “the wretchedness of experiencing our limitations” — really become a sign of hope to an exhausted world? What does Advent offer our homes, parishes, and communities ravaged not just by a virus, but also a brutal election year and another summer of protests over racial injustice? We’re desperate for normalcy, yet amid all of our wounds laid bare this year, there’s a very real, renewed sense among religious and secular people alike that the world was aching before the pandemic. How can the shaking of our “normal” bring restoration?

Father Delp knew that what is good at the heart of the Christmas feast lay beyond even the gifts of being with family, throwing open our doors in hospitality, or bonding over traditions.

“We Germans run the risk of concealing Christmas behind bourgeois customs and sentimentality, behind all those traditions that make this holiday dear to us,” he preached, three years before his death. “Yet perhaps the deep meaning is still hiding behind all those things.”

Even in the trenches of a pandemic, we’ve still managed to further conceal that meaning, pointing fingers at one side for wanting to cancel Christmas (as if the Incarnation could be cancelled!), or assuming that another’s longing to be in the presence of loved ones stems from selfishness or an inability to sacrifice. Meanwhile, the world is desperate for a lifeline — those “golden threads running between heaven and earth” that could extend from our homes, if we let them.

So far, my family has blessedly escaped COVID in our immediate circle, but the virus’ specter creeps closer and closer, and I don’t expect to gather with anyone outside my household soon. This is a loss, and I ache for the time when we can sing the Christmas hymns surrounded by friends and family. The oft-hidden, “deep meaning” of Christmas is boldly proclaimed in those songs — lines like, Born that man no more may die unfurling like a banner over a world wracked by death.

If this is a shaken, stripped down Advent and Christmas, then let’s allow what remains to shine undimmed in ways that will be particular to our own homes and abilities: A new tenderness that opens us up to be touched by God; cultivating our interior lives with intentional prayer; a sacrificial donation to the foodbank; a reconciled heart; a new boldness in sharing our reason for hope — the Christ child who rests in our well-worn family nativity set.

As I perused the glittery reindeer, trendy lettering, and cheerful greetings of online Christmas card templates, my mind gravitated instead toward the Christmas vigil meditation Father Delp wrote while awaiting his death sentence. There’s no pretending that Christmas 2020 is “normal,” or that it will even be merry for many of us. But Father Delp knew that sorrow at Christmas doesn’t take away its power:

The silver threads of God’s 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 become man. … 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.

Grotto quote graphic about Alfred Delp: "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."

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