[ Advent Week I]
Tegel Prison; Berlin; December 1944
The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not yet 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.
The entire message about God’s coming, about the Day of Salvation, about the 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: insights into, and alarm over powerlessness and futility of human life in relation to its ultimate meaning and fulfillment. The powerlessness and futility are boundaries of our human existence and are also consequences of sin. At the same time, we are keenly aware that life does have an ultimate meaning and fulfillment. The second finding: the promise of God to be on our side, to come to meet us. God resolved to raise the boundaries of our existence and to overcome the consequences of sin.
However, as a result, the basic condition of life always has an Advent dimension: boundaries, and hunger, and thirst, and the lack of fulfillment, and promise, and movement toward another. That means, however, that we basically remain without shelter, under way, and open until the final encounter, with all the humble blessedness and painful pleasure of this openness.
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. The promises given relate to this truth, not to arrogance and caprice. There really are promises given to this truth though, and we can and should rely upon them. The truth will make you free (Jn 8:32)
That 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 another condition is a deception. Our participation in this is 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 truth.
This is, however, a conversion and a return that allow for no procrastination… The existential untruth and continuing entanglement in it are not left to personal discretion. The lie is dangerously destructive. It has corroded our souls, destroyed our people, demolished our cities and countries, and already has left another generation bleed to death…
May we know and acknowledge the hunger and thirst above and beyond ourselves. Indeed, this is no waiting without hope. Rather, the heart receives the delightful warmth known to those who wait with certitude that the other is coming and has already set out on the way.
The terror that accompanies such an awakening to one’s own situation is finally and conclusively overcome from within by the certitude that God has already set out and is on His way. Our destinies, still so interwoven with the inescapable “logical” and “mechanical” course of events, are really nothing other than the ways that God the Lord uses to bring about this definitive meaning, as well as His ongoing inquiry. “Lift up your heads: Your salvation is near” (Lk 21:28).
In the same way that lies have gone out from people’s hearts, penetrating throughout the world and destroying it, so should—and so will—the truth begin its healing service within our hearts.
Light the candles wherever you can, you who have them. They are a real symbol of what must happen in Advent, what Advent must be, if we want to live.
[excerpt from Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings]
The phrase “being terrified unto death” in the opening line of Alfred Delp’s meditation on the 1st Sunday of Advent is not unique to German Christian life. The thought has its origin in one of Martin Luther’s commentaries. Luther writes: “God’s strength and consolation are given to no one unless he asks for it from the bottom of his heart. But no one who has not been profoundly terrified and forsaken prays profoundly.”
One can encounter a similar thought in Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Ratzinger. In an interview, Ratzinger was asked his opinion on the Cross. He replied that the Cross possesses a horrific aspect that is crucial to Christian piety. It soberly reminds us of our willingness to inflict violence. Such willingness makes us “frightened of ourselves.” Yet “we also need to be frightened of ourselves and out of our self-complacency. Here, I think Luther was right when he said that man must first be frightened of himself so that he can then find the right way.”
At the heart of these three Christians is the recognition that redemption works dialectically. Both sin and death as the punishment of sin remain in our world. Yet in Christ they become steps on the path to redemption. Operative in the whole work of redemption is the principle of conversion. The evil effects of sin become the material of healing. Death, the ultimate penalty of sin, becomes a principle of salvation, of restoration to new life in the resurrection. The curse becomes the blessing.