Sunday, December 12, 2021

Advent with Alfred Delp (Week 3)

Today is Gaudete Sunday, which, according to the liturgical dynamic of Advent, propels us toward rejoicing. That must have been a problematic expectation for Fr. Delp and his congregation in 1940s Munich - and even more so for Fr. Delp himself imprisoned in Berlin in 1944.

In 1941, the Gospel appointed for for Gaudete Sunday was still John 1:19-28. In the questions posed to John the Baptist, Delp discerned "the temptation which comes over anyone who is any kind of public figure whom the people follow!" And he warned against such seductive suggestions, when history's leaders, "not content with the laurel wreath of greatness, but wanted to take the diadem of the Messiah, the proclamation of salvation, the ultimate jurisdiction for themselves as well." Delp mentioned Alexander, Caesar, and Napoleon by name. He left unnamed other obvious contemporaries of his, whom it would have been too impolitic to mention by name. "Instead of salvation they brought disaster, because they were not honest enough to confess to themselves and to others: 'No.' The cornerstone of every such confession is modesty, and the knowledge of limits and of areas of responsibility."

In John the Baptist's humbly aware self-knowledge, Delp discerned an imperative for all: "One day, when we stand in the presence of the Absolute, this question will cut through our existence like a lightning bolt and manifest what is real and what was masquerade. If we are honest, even now, it sometimes must shudder through our being that the question, 'Who are you?' will be posed to us. This lightning bolt examination will not only pose the question from without, through those who will ask us and who do ask us every hour. It will not only address our work, our word, and our allegiance. It will address our very selves. 'Who are you?'"

A year later, preaching again in Munich for this Sunday, Delp highlighted the traditional Advent themes most familiarly associated with this Sunday, starting with the collect which was then in use Lord, make bright the darkness of our minds. Light and joy, the leitmotifs of Advent and Christmas, even in time of war! "Will the image of the Lord’s blessing shining through this people be fulfilled once again, or will the curse of despair smother us?" Delp asked.

Surprisingly (to our worldly way of thinking), Delp's most extensive reflection on joy came in 1944, in a lengthy meditation for this Sunday composed in prison in Berlin. But then we should recall that Saint Paul was perhaps in prison himself when he composed today's familiar exhortation to rejoice. What was decisive for Delp was his recognition that "Joy in human life has to do with God."

Thus, "The conditions for true joy have nothing to do with conditions of our exterior life, but consist of man’s interior frame of mind and competence, which make it possible now and again for him to sense, even in adverse external circumstances, what life is basically about." 

Obviously, none of us have experienced "adverse external circumstances" quite so adverse as Delp in prison awaiting execution by the Nazis. Nor should we engage in superficial comparisons - such as between the genuine inconveniences caused, for example, by covid lockdowns and the exponentially greater adversity experienced in prison. On the other hand, Delp's prison meditations may have perennial value for us precisely to the extent that we an identify with his experience enough to recognize the real constraints constricting our own lives at a foundational level.

Thus, in Fr. Delp's lengthy Gaudete Meditation in prison in 1944, he asked the obvious question: "Is joy not among those luxury items of life that have no place in the meager private area tolerated in wartime conversations?" And accordingly found an answer: "that is the decisive word. Joy in human life has to do with God." This in turn led to a further question: "How should we live so that we are capable—or can become capable—of true joy? This question should occupy us more today than it has in the past. Man should take joy as seriously as he takes himself. And he should believe in himself, believe in his heart and in his Lord God, even through darkness and distress—that he is created for joy. This really means that we are created for a fulfilled life that knows its meaning and is certain of its capabilities."

Again, inspired by today's traditional epistle (Philippians 4:4-7), Delp reflected further on the reason for Christian Advent joy: "'Dominus propus est—the Lord is near' tells us He is the God of personal nearness. The theological truths about providence and guidance, about the ever-presence of God, and about His merciful indwelling in us must become concrete, lived possessions. Then we will succeed in living through the experiences and events of workdays and holidays, of bright hours and dark hours, right up to that central point at which God reveals Himself as their deepest meaning." Delp related this personal nearness of God to the traditional language of indwelling: "The life of God is lived within us, within the deepest center of our being. Man becomes truly himself precisely at the point where he recognizes that the highest and brightest Being dwells within him."

At the same time, the Gospel account about John the Baptist highlighted for Delp the call to clarity and personal honesty, warning against the "false and foolish" obscuring of human limitations: "So instead of expanding his boundaries through sincere watchfulness and authentic exertion, man oversteps them. Overstepping boundaries on the ultimate level of being, however, is deadly." Thus, "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."

Finally, in the midst of all these challenges and all that is going wrong in our world, today's liturgy of Advent joy challenges us to recognize "Our distress does not die there, but the worry does."


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