The People of Advent: Our Blessed Lady

[Tegel Prison; Berlin; Advent 1944]

The People of Advent: Our Blessed Lady

modern pietaShe is the most comforting figure of Advent. That the message of the angel found  her heart ready, and the Word became flesh, and in the holy room of her motherly heart the earth grew far beyond its limitations into the human-divine sphere—these are the holiest comforts of Advent. What use to us is the thought and lived experience of our affliction, if no bridge is built to the other shore? How can the terror of chaos and confusion help us, if no light flares up to equal and overcome the darkness? What use to us is this shivering from cold and hardship, in which the world is freezing to death the more it loses and deadens itself deep down inside, if we do not at the same time experience that grace which is mightier than the danger and the lostness?

The poets, and the creators of myths, and mankind’s other legend and story-tellers have always spoken of mothers. Sometimes they meant the earth, at other times nature. They wanted to tap into the mysterious, regenerative wellsprings of the universe with this word, and to invoke the outpouring secret of life. In all of this there was—and is—hunger, and presentiment, and longing, and an Advent waiting for this blessed woman.

That God would become a mother’s son and that a woman could walk upon this earth, her body consecrated as a holy temple and tabernacle for God, is truly the earth’s culmination and fulfillment of its expectation.

The comfort of Advent shines forth in so many various way from this hidden figure of the blessed and waiting Mary. Oh, that this was granted to the earth, to bring forth such fruit! That the world was permitted to enter into the presence of God through sheltering warmth, as well as the helpful and reliable patronage of her motherly heart!

The gray horizons must light up. Only the foreground is screaming so loudly and penetratingly. Farther back, where it has to do with things that really count, the situation is already changing. The woman has conceived the Child, sheltered Him under her heart, and has given birth to her Son. The world has come under a different law. All these are not merely one-time historical events upon which our salvation rests. They are simultaneously the model figures and the events that announce to us the new order of things, of life, of our existence.

We have to remember today that the blessed woman of Nazareth is one of these illuminating figures. At a deeper level of being, even our times and our destiny bear the blessing and the mystery of God. The most important thing is to wait, to be able to wait, until the hour comes.

[Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings]


I notice that Delp describes Mary as “the holy temple and tabernacle for God.” One makes the case that Mary is the new temple or the living Ark of the Covenant. In her, God obtains a dwelling place in the world made of flesh. Moreover, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI points out in his essay “Hail Full of Grace” that it is in Mary’s Yes given with the flesh that God finds a dwelling place in the world. Without Mary’s fiat, the 2nd Person of the Trinity does not become Incarnate. Yet, Mary’s Yes is fully graced. Benedict writes: “The dogma of Mary’s freedom from original sin is at bottom meant solely to show that it is not human being who sets the redemption in motion by her own power, rather her Yes is contained wholly within the primacy and priority of divine love, which already embraces her before she is born.” All is grace. Yet grace does not cancel freedom; it creates it.”

Mary’s cooperation with the divine plan of redemption is one out of love. As Delp alludes in his meditation, Mary’s cooperation [to conceive, to shelter, and to give birth to Christ] flows from her “motherly heart.” Her heart represents an abiding love. Even prior to the physical changes within Mary, it was in her heart that Mary helped to realize the plan of redemption.

pieta-1854This abiding love has its first expression in her answer to the angel Gabriel, in her self-surrendering answer to God’s abiding will to save. Mary’s Yes is not only her consent to be physical mother of Jesus. In all genuine motherhood, the destiny of the mother and the child are intertwined. Her son’s joys and sufferings will also be her joys and sufferings. Mary’s Yes abides all her life long and culminates in the foot of the Cross in the midst of her Son’s suffering, which she receives in her “motherly heart.”

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Second Sunday of Advent

Meditation for the Second Sunday of Advent

[Tegel Prison; Berlin; December 1944]

baby-ultrasoundThe value or worthlessness of human life, its profundity or shallowness, depends very much on the conditions of our existence. Life ought to preserve its real stature and not dissipate itself in superficial interests or empty sterility. Western civilization is responsible for much misconception, foreshortening of views, distortion and so both in public and personal life. We are the products of that faulty outlook. Distortion is the great danger inherent in man’s nature to which we as a generation seem to have been more than ordinarily prone.

Moments of grace, both historical and personal, are invariably linked with an awakening and restoration of genuine order and truth. That , too, is part of the meaning of Advent. Not merely a promise, but rather conversion and transformation. Plato would have said preparation for the reception for truth. St. John the Baptist more simply called it a change of heart. The prayers and the message of Advent shake a man out of his complacency and make him more vividly aware of all that is changeable and dramatic in his life.

Therefore, the First Sunday has the shock of awakening as its theme; it is concerned with underlining man’s helplessness, his turning towards God the pivot of his life, his appeal for divine freedom to recompense the helpless movement of surrender…

The second Sunday carries these thoughts a stage further making them more concrete through the exercise of personal will. The message of this second Sunday can be divided into three parts: the first, affirmation, emphasizing God’s reaching out towards man. God is always the one who approaches. Not just occasionally but at all time. Affirming that he comes for our healing and salvation, the injunction to man to take God seriously, the man who trusts in God will be steadfast and equal to whatever is demanded of him.

Jesus-and-parable-Rich-Young-ManSecond—all this is not a simplification or a neutralization of life. God’s blessing while giving man the pleasure of freedom does not relieve him of responsibility. The encounter with God is not of man’s choosing either in regard to the place or the manner of it. Therefore the central portion of the message runs: “Blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me.” That is to say God is approaching but in his own way. The man who insists that his salvation shall depend on his own idea of what is right and proper is lost. It means further that the starting point at which contact is made with Christ. The way to salvation in the world is the way of the Saviour. There is no other way. We have to see this clearly and constantly affirm it.

Third, the keynote of this Sunday is the decision, the deliberate choice of salvation in Christ. As a decision regarding the afterlife; this love of heavenly things is a difficult and weighty matter. As a decision in favor of freedom from petty entanglements and points of view—arise and stand on high; the heights determine the range and vision and the air a soul may breathe. As a decision for character and attitude (the figure of John the Baptist). As a decision for Christian mission; our salvation depends upon our leading a Christian life, which cannot be separated from personal obligation to the figure and the mission of Christ. As a decision to let the grace of God work in us (collect: Awaken our hearts, the companion piece to last Sunday’s Awaken your power), that God may break open our narrowness that confines us within ourselves and render us capable to receive Him and capable of His mission.

0804.101_6253.jpg-550x0So this Sunday we must again fold our hands and kneel humbly before God in order that his salvation maybe active in us and that we may be worthy to call upon Him and be touched by His presence. The arrogance so typical of modern man is deflated here; at the same time the icy loneliness and helplessness in which we are frozen melts under divine warmth that fills and blesses us.


[The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]

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Homily for the First Sunday of Advent 1943

Homily for the First Sunday of Advent; Preached in Munich; November 28, 1943

Despite this gloomy time, with a certitude about life and faith, we have set up the Advent wreath, even though no one knows how long it will stand or whether all four of its candles will be lit. The course of the liturgical year and the message continues, and we keep on doing things—but not for the sake of custom and tradition. It comes from a sense of certitude about things and mankind and revelation—things that are fixed and valid in and of themselves. These give mankind the right to light candles and to believe in the light and brightness of existence. Not as if it were granted to us to erase all the gloominess! All the gloom must be gone through and endured. Yet, precisely for that reason, the lights of Advent should shine forth from within as we let ourselves be led to the insight that man is not under the law of imprisonment, enslavement, threats….

candle in the darkThe message of the First Sunday of Advent is to attain to the source. It is a Sunday whose basic insight gives a particular expression to the objectivity of our existence. It enlightens our lives and dismisses what is questionable, so that we can believe in brightness. Man must learn once again that the fundamental character of time is not one of activity. Occidentals, increasingly busy, seeking to have and to possess, easily gamble away the meaning. Man must realize that is a wayfarer, a scout, hungering and restless. He is dependent upon an angel approaching and touching him with wingstroke reminder of a higher message.

Even so, our waiting is not the end. In today’s Gospel about the end of the world, we read: “The people will languish in fearful expectation as they await the things that will come over the entire world; for the powers of Heaven will be shaken” [Luke 21:26]. There is a character of fearful expectation when things start to tremble, when life is felt to be so menacing. Nevertheless, it is bourgeois simply to wait for the sky to become light again. This experience of waiting will continue to be wrongly understood unless one sees that we are meant to learn from it. Man is not permitted to fixate himself too much within his own sphere of life, settling himself too firmly in place until he is chased away. We will wrongly understand this waiting if we forget that the deeper meaning of life is to keep watch.

Here is what lies behind it: man must notice and feel that the longing for the sun, for happiness, is only the foreground; that it is his affliction to hunger for something more; that he is not really human until the good is actualized before him and love is activated within him…

There is nothing more blessed in life that true waiting, but there is also no greater un-blessedness than “having to wait”, for each plan is thwarted and left in fragments. Why is this way? You must reach out, but you will not essentially get beyond yourself if the Other does not come to meet you. Man is truly human when he transcends himself. He becomes small when he is content with things and values from his own life sphere…

This is why the Lord calls each one of us to this awakening, to this self-reflection. The liturgy today should not just mean pious words to us, but, in these difficult times, this should become a season of reflection. We should discover life and its fundamental order.

wayfarerThis should be our first Advent light: to understand everything, all that happens to us and all that threatens us, from the perspective of life’s character of waiting. We must endure all the blessedness and un-blessedness of waiting because we are under way. The character of life is to keep going, to keep a lookout, and to endure until the vigilant heart of man and the heart of God who meets us come together…

People who fail to live out of the center can be alienated from themselves so easily by outside influence. Other values of secondary importance impose themselves, making life inauthentic and bringing it under an alien law and an alien paradigm. Are we living out of the center of our being, or from memory, from impulses, but not because we are settled in the center of reality and find our stability nourished there? This is the deeper sense of Advent: that we scrutinize this center, little by little, and set up lights of recognition in our lives, and from the center, master life’s gloominess. There is no absolute darkness…

[excerpt from Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings]


Alfred Delp was aware that the Gestapo were watching and listening to the homilies of Catholic priests. His confrere–Rupert Mayer was arrested and imprisoned for his outright criticism of the Nazi regime in his homilies. Therefore, Delp crafted his homilies to deliver subtle critiques of the Nazis during his time as rector at St. Georg’s Parish in Munich.

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The People of Advent: the Angel of Annunciation

Tegel Prison; Berlin; December 1944

The Angel of Annunciation

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896Never have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now. When I pace my cell, up, and down, three paces one way and three the other, my hands manacled, an unknown fate in front of me, then the tidings of our Lord’s coming to redeem the world and deliver it have quite a different and much more vivid meaning. And my mind keeps going back to the angel someone gave me as a present during Advent two or three years ago. It bore the inscription: “Be of good cheer. The Lord is near.” A bomb destroyed it. The same bomb killed the donor and I often have the felling that he is rendering me some heavenly aid. It would be impossible to endure the horror of these times—like the horror of life itself, could we only see it clearly enough—if there were not this other knowledge which constantly buoys us up and gives us strength: the knowledge of the promises that have been given and fulfilled. And the awareness of the angels of good tidings, uttering their blessed messages in the midst of all this trouble and sowing the seed of blessing where it will sprout in the middle of the night.

The angels of Advent are not the bright jubilant beings who trumpet the tidings of fulfillment to a waiting world. Quiet and unseen, they enter our shabby rooms and our hearts as they did of old. In the silence of the night they pose God’s questions and proclaim the wonders of him whom all things are possible.

20130128-225214Advent, even when things are going wrong, is a period from which a message can be drawn. May the time never come when men forget about the good tidings and promises, when so immured within the four walls of their prison that their eyes are dimmed, they see nothing but gray days through barred windows placed to high to see out of. May the time never come when mankind no longer hears the soft footsteps of the Angel of Annunciation, or his cheering words that penetrate the soul. Should such a time come all will be lost. Then indeed we shall be living in bankruptcy and hope will die in our hearts.

For the first thing man must do if he wants to raise himself out of this sterile life is to open his heart to the golden seed which God’s angels are waiting to sow in it. And one other thing; he must bring himself throughout these gray days go forth as a bringer of glad tidings. There is so much despair that cries out for comfort; there is so much faint courage that needs to be reinforced; there is so much perplexity that yearns for reasons and meanings. God’s messengers, who have themselves reaped the fruits of divine seeds sown even in the darkest hours, know how to wait for the fullness of harvest. Patience and faith are needed, not because we believe in earth, or in our stars, or our temperament or our good disposition, but because we have received the message of God’s Angel of Annunciation and have ourselves encountered him.

[from The Prison Memoirs of Father Delp]


vatbarditAround this time of the year I often preach that Christians are a Marian people—that we are called to receive and give birth to divinity in the world. This demands that we notice the angels of Advent in our midst and to have them to speak to our interiors. To say “Yes” to such encounters, there entails a mindset of stillness and receptivity. It also demands an imagination that says “No” to modernity’s inclination to snuff every bit of mystery out of existence. To live without such an imagination can impair the maturation of oneself; it would hinder any possibility of newness in the person. As Kathleen Norris points out: “The first thing Gabriel does when he encounter Mary, is to give her a new name: ‘Most favored one.’ It’s a naming ceremony.” Here, Mary discovers in herself a deeper reality. “A mystery; something holy, with a potential for salvation.”

The difficult pilgrimage towards reaching Christ is also the pilgrimage of bearing Christ in the world. This is a beautiful paradox of our lives as disciples in and with Christ. The radical Christian lives a Marian existence—an ecclesial existence, and thus nurtures the Body of Christ in the world.

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Advent Week I

[ Advent Week I]

Tegel Prison; Berlin; December 1944

80294543_church_97180bThe 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.

An Egyptian man cleans blood stains fromTherefore 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.

PakistanThis 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.

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Alfred Delp: The People of Advent–John the Baptist

1_0_704318On the Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, Pope Francis said that the Church exists to announce Christ even to the point of martyrdom, following the pattern of John the Baptist. The Pope indicated on June 24 that the John the Baptist “could have made himself important, he could have said something about himself,” but instead “he felt himself to be the voice, not the Word. This is John’s secret. He would not be an ideologue.” Francis held that the Baptist is a model for Christians “because he never, never took a truth as his own…(he) negated himself so that the Word could come to the fore.”

The Pope also reflected that in prison John experienced doubts and anguish. The life of the one who was the voice of the Word is “one of pain and darkness”. John “was not even spared this”, said the Pope, who mentioned: “the figure of John makes me think so much about the Church.”

johnbaptist1Perhaps, Alfred Delp turned to the figure of John the Baptist for the same reason 69 years earlier. For Delp, John the Baptist serves as a pattern of his own vocation in the dark wilderness of his time. He became the voice of the Logos in a ideologically flush but morally gutted society. Like John, he was imprisoned and executed, because he proclaimed the Logos that countered the ideological inclination of the human logos and makes a demand on it. And if the Pope is correct in his take on the imprisonment of John the Baptist, then both the Baptist and Delp did not die the enthusiastic, spirited death of the early Christians and the Christians in sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Rather they suffered in anguish and weakness.

Such a type of martyr is conceivably  “one of pain and darkness.” He is wracked with anxiety and doubts; he is convinced that he is not worthy to be a martyr; he does not feel that he has the strength to carry the yoke that is placed before him. Yet as the Pope suggests, such a person is the point where the objective and subjective holiness of the Church meet.

Both the Baptist and Delp are witnesses to a truth that transcend them. Yet they remain witnesses to that truth, and as such subjects of their acts. The final act of the martyr is kin to its predecessors like the last stanza of a poem, which concludes and gives form to what has gone before.


Berlin; Tegel Prison; 1944

The voice crying out in the wilderness

all-best-black-friday-electronics-gadget-deals-2013.w654We live in an age that has every right to consider itself no wilderness. But woe to any age in which the voice crying out in the wilderness can no longer be heard because the noises of everyday life drown it—or restrictions forbid it—or it is lost in the hurry and turmoil of progress—or simply stifled by authority, misled by fear and cowardice. Then the destructive weeds will spread so suddenly and rapidly that word “wilderness” will recur to men’s minds willy-nilly. I believe we are no strangers to this discovery.

Yet for all this, where are the voices that should ring out in protest and accusation? There should never be any lack of prophets like John the Baptist in the kaleidoscope of life at any period; brave men inspired by the dynamic compulsion of the mission to which they are dedicated, true witnesses following the lead of their hearts that is why their vision is so keen and their judgment. They do not call for the sake of calling or to hear their own voices… They have the great consolation that one can know only after having stepped beyond the deepest and most extreme limits of existence. Such men proclaim healing and salvation. They call man to face his last chance, because they already feel the ground heaving beneath their feet; feel the beams cracking; the great mountains shuddering inwardly; and the stars dangling insecurely. They cry out to man to the potential of averting the spreading wilderness, which is about fall upon him and crush him, by means of a change of heart.

Oh God, modern man knows what it means to clear away bomb dust and rubble of destruction, making the rough places smooth again… May the arresting voices of the wilderness ring out warning that ruin and devastation actually spread from within. May the Advent figure of John the Baptist, the inexorable messenger and prophet in God’s name not be a stranger to our wilderness of ruins. Much in our lives is dependent upon these figures. For how shall we hear of there are none whose voice can rise above the tumult of violence and destruction, the false clamor that deafens us to reality?


[excerpts from The Prison Memoirs of Father Delp]

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Alfred Delp: The People of Advent

Delp (1)In the last days of November of 1944, Alfred Delp, SJ, turned to meditate on the meaning of Advent. These meditations on the Incarnation and discipleship necessarily do not match the beautiful, evocative images that we have of the season of Advent. They are rather rough, sober, and difficult to swallow.

Delp’s writings came forth from his particular situation. With wrists fettered in a cold cell with no keyhole that only offered him the space to walk three paces in one direction and three in the other, he wrote drenched in fear, loneliness, and hunger. For Delp, such is the condition of fallen humanity. He believed that many of us are in someway imprisoned. And he argued that the only way to authentic freedom is to be shaken up so that one can face life with some integrity.

Conceivably, Delp’s message of conversion is not needed for today’s world; his message is not timeless. Yet when a culture descends into a consumeristic frenzy as it did this past Friday and the health of a society arguably is measured by such frenzy, one must wonder whether Delp’s summons to repentance is in some small measure apropos for 21st century American society.

Berlin; Tegel Prison; 1944

The People of Advent:

Advent is the time for rousing. Man is shaken to the very depths, so that he may wake up to the truth of himself. The primary condition for a fruitful and rewarding Advent is renunciation, surrender. Man must let go of all his mistaken dreams, his conceited poses and arrogant gestures, all the pretenses with which he hopes to deceive himself and others. If he fails to do this stark reality may take hold of him and rouse him forcibly in a way that will entail both anxiety and suffering.

The kind of awakening that literally shocks man’s whole being is part and parcel of the Advent idea. A deep emotional experience like this is the necessary preliminary. Life only begins when the whole framework is shaken. There can be no proper preparation without this. It is precisely in the shock of rousing while he still deep in the helpless, semiconscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden thread which binds earth to heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fullness it is capable of realizing and is called upon to realize…

We have to listen, to keep watch, to let our heart quicken under the impulse of the indwelling Spirit. Only in this quiescent state can the true blessing of Advent be experienced and then we shall also recognize it in other ways. Once awakened to an inner awareness we are constantly surprised by symbols bearing the Advent message, figures of tried and proved personalities that bring out in a most forceful way the inner meaning of the feast and emphasize its blessing.

I am thinking of three in particular–the voice crying out in the wilderness, the angel of annunciation, and our blessed Lady.

[excerpt from: The Prison Meditations of Father Delp]

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