“We run the risk of concealing Christmas behind bourgeois customs and sentimentality, behind all those traditions that make this holiday dear and precious to us,” wrote Father Alfred Delp, S.J., from his cell in a Nazi concentration camp. “Yet perhaps the deep meaning is still hiding behind all those things. What this celebration is about is the founding of a final order for the world, a new center of meaning for all existence. We are not celebrating some children’s holiday, but rather the fact that God has spoken His ultimate Word. Christ is the ultimate Word of God to the world.”
Father Delp, chained and awaiting his inevitable worldly punishment for heralding the Good News in the spiritual wilderness of totalitarian megalomania, naturally understood the humble confession of John the Baptist — “I am not he” — to be the key to what he describes as “the Advent of the heart.” The confession that we are not God is the first step toward becoming human — who we really are. This is what we need to hear, the Advent we are waiting for. Delp lamented, however, that the wilderness of his time had become so thick that “the voice crying out” in its midst might no longer even be heard!
Denying any myth of secular salvation always exacts a high price. Daring to defect from the mad Christmas rush into a refuge of peace and quiet is a heresy from which few jaded consciences can forgive themselves these days, pressed as we are by the guilt of lost connections and the self-sentenced lists by which, followed, we hope to repair them. Our best efforts have not produced the peace we long for. We fall far again from our goals for a Christmas that can never come from us. Only Christ can save the world.
The wilderness of John and Father Delp is not different from that of our chaotic and confusing Black Fridays or Cyber Mondays, where aridity and desolation are no less apparent, merely louder and more labyrinthine. It is indeed difficult to heed the cry in our souls — let alone the poor around us — when the wilderness itself has grown so everywhere. What Delp saw in the Baptist was, above all, one who did not inflate his own importance, but personified “service and annunciation” in pointing the way to the true Messiah.
Central to our vocational call to service is worship. Unless we adore the Christ who saves us personally we cannot serve the God revealed in creation. Work alone, therefore, not even good and giving social work, cannot be authentic and humanizing unless it is caught up in prayer and thanksgiving for the gift of the crucified Savior. Candles, carols and cookies, though more romantic perhaps than the shopping treks, are merely memories in search of a star that seeks its resting place in Bethlehem. Separating our Christmas preparations from the practice of Sunday worship and daily, reflective prayer, therefore, are a total contradiction. Like a pregnancy preparing for, tragically, a stillborn birth.
From his imprisonment, Delp recognized the poor and damaged state of the broken, disillusioned humanity around him, but he did not despair of it in his own suffering. Instead he saw his confinement and poverty as a call for purification and focus on the God who comes to those whose hearts thirst for the fresh air of His promised grace.
The Advent we are waiting for is here in our midst. It is the seed of faith that has been planted in our hearts since baptism. If, Mary-like, we would choose to accept the promise of bearing Christ to the world, then He will also be born in each of us as the God who comes. Over an old holiday a new Holy Day will dawn.