December 21, 2018
Advent, and the Solstice
Zephaniah 3:14-18; Psalm 33; Luke 1:39-45
On this memorial of St. Peter Canisius, a sixteenth century German Jesuit who helped promote the teachings of the Council of Trent, I think of another German Jesuit, a twentieth century Jesuit, Alfred Delp, who was executed by the Nazis in 1945 for resisting Hitler and the Nazi regime.
Delp was young when he died, only 35—in fact, he said his final vows as a Jesuit in prison.
He celebrated mass in prison, with his hands bound, and he saw his hands as an image of how we are all bound, by our sins. We are all in prison.
And I think of him because he wrote a remarkable series of meditations while he was in prison, in the last few months of life, and in particular a series of meditations on the meaning of Advent. “Never,” he said, “have I entered on Advent so vitally and intensely alert as I am now.”
This was in part because the state of the world and his own imprisonment made him intensely aware of how all of life is, “fundamentally, a continuous Advent,” “a hunger and thirst and awareness of lack,” a waiting in darkness for what only God can give us. “Unless we have been shocked to our depths at ourselves and the things we are capable of,” he says, “we cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent.” Life is empty and meaningless without God, we are incapable of producing anything of lasting value, on our own, through our own effort, and we have to experience that, directly, we have to face that, before we can understand Christmas, before we can anticipate, in joy, the One-Who-Will Come.
In God alone do our hearts rejoice, as the Psalmist says today. “In His holy name we trust.”
Even at the end, after he had been condemned to death and was struggling with his own fear, he was sure. “One thing is gradually becoming clear,” Delp wrote in his diary, “I must surrender myself completely,” and it’s in this sense, too, that he venerates our Lady in the stories of Advent. “Today,” he wrote, “we must have the courage to look on our Lady as a symbolic figure”—a symbol of trust, of obedience in the face of violence and oppression.
“Most blessed are you among women,” Elizabeth cries out.
“Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged,” Zephaniah says. “The LORD, your God, is in your midst,” even in a prison cell, even in the execution chamber.
“The LORD has removed the judgment against you,” whatever the ruling of any false court or human institution.
So, this remarkable courage, this remarkable steadfastness, in the darkest time of the year, in one of the darkest times of history.
But not just courage. Not just steadfastness.
As Elizabeth feels her baby leap for joy in her womb, Delp in his prison cell again and again felt joy:
Every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy there is in it. Suddenly, without any cause that I can perceive, without knowing why or by what right, my spirits soar again and there is not a doubt in my mind that all the promises hold good.
Delp wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t a fanatic. He was as frightened as we would be in that situation. But that wasn’t all he was. He has joyous. He was free in a way far more profound than his captors could ever understand because the Lord was with him, and he felt it, he knew it. The light was shining through the bars, and inside him.
His impending execution was the Advent of something tender and loving beyond all telling.
Joy. Always joy. A kingdom not of this world but of the stable. Of the manger. Of the child.
I don’t know what binds your hands. I don’t know what imprisons you. I know what imprisons me, what frightens me, but today, on the Solstice, when all the natural world around us is dead, when the darkness comes so early, when all the social and political structures around us are so full of violence and hatred and stupidity and greed, Alfred Delp and St. Peter Canisius and St. Elizabeth and our Lady and the Christ Child are all calling us to a joy we can only glimpse, to what Delp calls “a sense of inner exaltation and comfort,” an exaltation and a comfort that are always being offered to us, always given, always available, however deep the darkness.
We are loved by God, and nothing can hurt us.