Sunday, November 30, 2014

A time for rousing.

With the Advent Season rolling around once again, conversations in the real world and online have led me to conclude that this might be a good time to once again share a series of Advent reflections first posted on this blog five years ago, partly in hopes that they might thereby gain some new readers. Though I may revise some of the others before posting them again, the text of the first such reflection is posted below exactly as it was first presented in 2009. Readers wanting to get a copy of the book referred to below may find it in various versions, including an older English translation (the one I used in preparing the original reflections) as well as a newer and apparently more complete translation, and naturally also the German original. I note that Father John Zuhlsdorf is also recommending this book for Advent for at least the second year running, and I would be happy if the attention gains some new readers for a modern spiritual classic.


Christmas is not a good time to be caught unawares. As the annual hype surrounding "Black Friday" reminds us, it's usually a good idea to start one's Christmas shopping as early as possible. Putting off Christmas shopping until the last minute can be risky: you may get lucky and find some bargains, but you're more likely to find half-empty shelves that may not include the items you were looking for. Whether it's a matter of finding the right gifts for loved ones, obtaining and decorating the right tree, or planning the family dinner, Christmas is a time when it generally pays to be prepared - not just materially and physically, but spiritually as well.

Preparing to celebrate the Nativity of Christ is no easy task. In the Christian East, the "Winter Pascha" of Christmas is preceded by a forty-day Nativity Fast that partly mirrors the penitential season of Lent. For Roman Catholics, the task of preparing spiritually for Christmas begins today with the First Sunday of Advent. Many churchgoers look forward to the sights and sounds of Advent - the four candles of the Advent wreath, the strains of hymns like Veni, Veni Emmanuel - but I suspect that relatively few take the time to reflect on the grave task that confronts us during this season.

In the modern age, few have articulated the meaning of Advent with as much clarity or force as the twentieth-century German Jesuit Alfred Delp, who was murdered in February 1945 for his opposition to the Nazi regime. From December 1944 to January 1945, as he sat in Berlin's Tegel Prison awaiting execution, Father Delp produced a series of reflections on Advent and Christmas that would later be published in a book called Im Angesicht des Todes (In the Face of Death), translated into English in the early 1960s as The Prison Meditations of Father Delp. Early on in his reflections, Father Delp explains that Advent is a time for our awakening to the truth about ourselves and our relationship with God:
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 pretences 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 necessary to kindle the inner light which confirms the blessing and the promise of the Lord. A shattering awakening; that 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 is still deep in the helpless, semi-conscious state, in the pitiable weakness of that borderland between sleep and waking, that man finds the golden threat which binds earth to heaven and gives the benighted soul some inkling of the fulness it is capable of realising and is called upon to realise.
A few pages later, in a meditation on the First Sunday of Advent, Father Delp explains what the process of awakening that we undertake during this season is really for. In Advent, we discover anew the necessity of the Incarnation and the purpose of human striving for God:
Unless a man has been shocked to his depths at himself and the things he is capable of, as well as at the failings of humanity as a whole, he cannot possibly understand the full import of Advent.

If the whole message of the coming of God, of the day of salvation, of approaching redemption, is to seem more than a divinely-inspired legend or a bit of poetic fiction, two things must be accepted unreservedly:

First, that life is both powerless and futile insofar as by itself it has neither purpose nor fulfillment. It is powerless and futile within its own range of existence and also as a consequence of sin. To this must be added the rider that life clearly demands both purpose and fulfillment.

Secondly it must be recognised that it is God's alliance with man, his being on our side, ranging himself with us, that corrects this state of meaningless futility. It is necessary to be conscious of God's decision to enlarge the boundaries of his own supreme existence by condescending to share ours for the overcoming of sin.

It follows that life, fundamentally, is a continuous Advent; hunger and thirst and awareness of lack involve movement towards fulfillment. But this also means that in his progress towards fulfillment man is vulnerable; he is perpetually moving towards, and is capable of receiving, the ultimate revelation with all the pain inseparable from that achievement.
As we prepare to celebrate God's coming among us, I pray that we may take Father Delp's words to heart. As we reflect on own unique personal failings and weaknesses, may we become more conscious of our need for redemption. As we awaken again to the truth about ourselves, may we come to appreciate more fully the gift of the Incarnation. As we seek to understand the true meaning of Advent, let us prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. AMDG.


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