The Vigil of Christmas: Concerning the Blessed Burden of God
[Tegel Prison, Berlin, December 1944]
There has always been a lot of misunderstanding about the feast of the nativity. Superficial familiarity, sentimental crib-making… have to some extent distorted our view of the stupendous event the feast commemorates.
This year (1944) the temptation to make an idyllic myth of Christmas will no doubt be less in evidence than usual. The harsh realities of life have been brought home to us as never before. Many who spend Christmas in dugout and shelters that would make the stable at Bethlehem seem cozy by comparison will have little inclination to glamorize the ox and the ass. They may even stumble on the idea of asking themselves what really happened that holy night—was the world made a better, a more beautiful place? Did life acquire a blessing because the angels sang Gloria in excelsis, because the shepherds were astounded and hurried to pay homage, because a king lost his nerve and ordered the innocents to be massacred? Yet at this point the questions have already started to run wild—for this crime took place simply and solely because it was the holy night.
Yet Christians probably never pray more fervently than when they offer up the respirare at the conclusion of the vigil Mass. We breathe again because the birth of the Only-Begotten will, we trust, ease our burdens. A load has been lifted from our hearts. Life takes on a new meaning because a new perspective is disclosed, because the decisive moment has been reached again, because the relative security we normally count has not yet been swallowed up by the uncertainties of this abnormal times.
To breathe again. To be honest I too long to be able to breathe again, to be relieved of my troubles. How earnestly I prayed the prayer for speedy deliverance in yesterday’s Mass. Each day I have to steel myself for the hours of daylight and each night for the hours of darkness. In between I often kneel or sit before the silent Host and talk over with him the circumstances in which I am. Without this constant contact with him I should have despaired long ago.
The question that applies to the whole world applies to me personally and concretely on this feast of the nativity. Is there anything different about celebrating Mass here in this narrow cell where prayers are said and tears are shed and God is known, believed in and called on? At stated hours the key grates in the lock and my wrists are put back into handcuffs; at stated hours they are taken off—that goes on day after day, monotonously, without variation. Where does the breathing again which God makes possible come in? And the waiting and waiting for relief—how long? And to what end?
It is necessary to celebrate the feast of Nativity with great realism, otherwise one’s imagination will conjure up magical happenings for which one’s sober reason can discover no justification nor prospect. And as a result of that celebration of the feast could easily lead to bitter disappointment and deep depression. The vigil Mass leads to the necessary restrained, expectant and realistic frame of mind in three ways…
We ought to remember we are approaching the feast of God-made man, not of man rendered divine. The divine mystery takes place on earth and follows the natural course of earthly events… God enters our homes, our existence, not only like us but actually as one of us. That is the unfathomable mystery. From this point on the Son is absorbed by history, his fate becomes the part of history and history’s fate is his fate. In the darkest of cells and the loneliest prisons we can meet him; he is continually on the high roads and in the lanes…
[The Christmas] vigil further prevents our becoming bemused by the over-glamorized picture of the divine Child by pointing out another fundamental relationship between God and man. Suddenly and unexpectedly the collect reminds us that the Child, whose coming we so joyfully await, will be our future judge–in fact is already sitting in judgment over our lives. That someday the laughing eyes of the Child will harden with adult sternness, questioning and judging. The increased capacity for life which comes heeding this warning, the awakened sense of responsibility, remains with us long after Christmas is over provided we have we have entered the vigil in the proper spirit. And if we remember the divine Child of Christmas is already engaged in the serious business of judging the world how many people who represent the human race today can honestly approach the crib? Most of them don’t even want to. The small and narrow door will not admit those who come riding on high horse. But simple shepherds have no difficulty in getting through. The star leads the regal wide men to it but the arrogance of Jerusalem is thrown into panic by the Child. How much there is in all our lives today that cannot face the Child. How different our lives would be if only we realized that the world’s supreme hour struck midnight when almighty God condescended to come to us as a little child. We should not behave so greedily, so arrogantly, so high handedly to one another if we did. Children do not strike to the wound. But to pretend to be grown up and responsible; we are so proud and self-assured–and look at the result. The world lies in bomb dust and ruins us.
Every hour of our Lord’s life from the crib to the Cross by which we are redeemed is a judgment on some part of our existence. That is why we are so defeated and in such trouble. But his last hour was the resurrection, his glorious homecoming. We ought to take the Christ Child very seriously….
Let us reread the gospel of the vigil from a human angle—looking at the episode in our Lady’s life from a purely human point of view. We know how it all ended so it doesn’t disturb us, but at the time there must have been a great deal of heartache. Joseph’s belief in a trusted human has been shattered—but what must Mary herself have gone through? She had dedicated herself to God—her submission was complete and unreserved. She had received the Word in a way no other human being would ever share. And then God became silent. She must have felt her husband’s questioning eyes following her; she must have known the torment he was going through and the blow his sense of justice had received. And God left her alone in this hour with all the weight of her trouble pressing on her. From a purely human point of view what a terrible position to be in.
And what about our own fate? We have heard the promises and believed in the messages and accepted the prophecies. And then something unexpected happens and our life is twisted out of shape—human life is subject to that sort of thing, even the life of Christians. Ought it to be different in their cases? It isn’t. And it is precisely when we come up against occurrences like these that our faith is put to the real test. To adhere steadfastly to the Word even when we strike our foot against a stone, even when we feel we are beaten, even when we are fastened in chains and handcuffs—that is the answer. And that is the answer that will be expected when each man is questioned at the seat of judgment; no one can expect it. God is posting that very question to us today in a hundred different ways and we have to see it that we give the right answer. Steadfastness is not an easy virtue to acquire but it makes a man fit to face his Maker and it opens his eyes to actual reality of God.
Once a man honestly tries to acquire it the face of the whole world is changed. The stark features of unavoidable accident, of logical consequences and necessity are softened. The world, and life, take on a more friendly look—they seem to assume an almost parental compassion…
[excerpt from The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]