Meditation for the First Sunday of Advent

Fr Alfred Delp
Written in Tegel Prison, Berlin
December 1944

The deepest meaning of Advent cannot be understood by anyone who has not 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.

This entire message about God’s coming, about the Day of Salvation, about 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: insight into, and alarm over the powerlessness and futility of human life in relation to its ultimate meaning and fulfillment. The powerlessness and futility are both boundaries of our 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 lack of fulfillment, and promise, and movement toward one 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.

Therefore 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 other conditions is a deception. Our participation in this 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 the truth.

This is, however, a conversion and a return that allow for no procrastination. “Ab imminentibus peccatorum. . .periculis! [The dangers that threaten us because of sin!]” The existential untruth and continuing entanglement in it are not matters 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 let yet another generation bleed to death.

Universi, qui te exspectant, non confundentur [Those who wait for You will not be disappointed].”  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 the 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 meeting, as well as His ongoing inquiry. “Levate capita vestra: quoniam appropinquat redemptio vestra [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.

Advent of the Heart: Seasonal Sermons and Prison Writings, 1941-1944, Ignatius Press, 2006

I was initially pointed to Fr Delp by Ben Trovato, and I have enjoyed reading the words of this brave, deeply spiritual man at Advent ever since.  More on his story can be found here.

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7 Responses to Meditation for the First Sunday of Advent

  1. Michael says:

    The focus on a great existential lie (and our participation it) being at the root of sin brings to mind something from a book I’ve been reading recently:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/God-Man-Theology-Anthropology-Athanasius/dp/0567033708/ref=la_B001JOQP14_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1449416116&sr=1-1

    In it, the writings of four different Church Fathers are considered in order show the common threads in their thinking about salvation – more specifically, how for the early Church theology and anthropology were inseparable topics, reflection on one shedding light on the other and vice versa.

    The chapter on Saint Irenaeus mentions how he characterises the devil principally as arch-liar, and thus our falling away from God as a following him in this fundamental lie about our nature (that we were created free to be our own masters, not so that we might participate in the very life of God). In the chapter on Tertullian however, the devil’s fall is described primarily in terms of impatience – that he did not have the patience to wait and see what God had in mind in creating man for loving communion with Himself.

    Similarly (according to Tertullian), our sins are characterised by impatience also – unable to wait faithfully for our selves to be restored to God’s image in Christ and therefore for His work to be achieved, we impatiently choose the easier option (i.e.; evil). It seems to me (and to the author of the book above, if I read him rightly) that these are complementary ways of seeing our fall (and that of the devil) – that the lie about who we are, who God is, what we are destined for, etc, is partly born out of impatience, but that also the lie then makes it easier to be impatient and to choose evil over good subsequently. Perhaps they are just two ways of saying the same thing, two sides of the same coin.

    At any rate, I think that seeing sin in the way Fr. Delp does is a very fruitful one – it combines the fact that sin is born in the will (c.f.; impatience) with the fact that it operates in a wider context that is rooted fundamentally in distortion, untruth (c.f.; the lie). Faith is thus never purely intellectual nor purely volitional – just as man is neither solely a logical being or a creature motivated by will alone. One of the major glories of the Church of course is to achieve this balance in all her definitions of both man and the divine (as well as the ways in which the two interact).

  2. kathleen says:

    Michael,

    Thank you so much for this. I find your analysis above of the “great existential lie (and our participation it) being at the root of sin” absolutely fascinating, giving us all a great deal of further ‘food for thought’.

    The mystery of Good vs. Evil, so unique to Man (and Angels) among all of God’s Creation, has always had learned philosophers and great thinkers scratching their heads as they studied and wondered about this great phenomenon. All this right from the very beginnings of our existence on Earth, and long before Our Lord Jesus Christ became Man and died for our sins to save us from Hell and Eternal Death, when a great light was thrown on this mystery by the Revelations of Our Saviour. Man’s strong desire to have the powers of God led to the Fall:
    “Then the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die: for God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Gen. 3:4-5)

    Unfortunately, I doubt whether I shall ever have the time to read this book you recommend above, but in its description at Amazon, this very point is brought to light:
    “Assessing theology as anthropology-as the approach to doctrines of God through understandings of the human-creative insight is gleaned into refined developments of trinitiarian thought far earlier than Nicaea, and advanced reflections on the divinity of the Holy Spirit long before Constantinople. The nature of humanity as ‘in the image of God’ takes on a fresh potency when it is approached not only as a window on the human, but the means by which the human reveals the nature of God.”

    Knowledge of the existence of God is given to all Men in their immortal soul. It is our desire to be our own ‘god’ that leads many to deny their Creator’s existence!!
    Sin is indeed “born in the will” and based on a “lie”.

    Your last sentence (about Faith) is wonderful and truly insightful. Worth repeating:

    “One of the major glories of the Church of course is to achieve this balance in all her definitions of both man and the divine (as well as the ways in which the two interact).”

  3. Michael says:

    Thank you Kathleen! I admit that the book is, whilst not great in length, quite dense and not written in the most approachable style – I found it quite a slog, but worthwhile in the end! The essence of his argument seems to be twofold though:

    Firstly, that, as the quote you’ve placed above alludes to, despite early Church history having been previously divided up into neat stages where one bit looked at Creation, another at Christology, another at Pneumatology and Trinitarian doctrine, there is a deep consistency running right through from the early days where, despite the precise language of Nicaea, Constantinople and Chalcedon being lacking, the data of revelation was reflected on in a way that saw all these elements as bound together, informing one another.

    Whilst it was necessary to use more exact terms later on, in order to properly combat heresies, the sharp changes in understanding of these core doctrines previously imagined just did not exist – as with all true development of doctrine, clarifications emerged from what was already apparent, so that previous generations would be able to look at Chalcedon and, once the novel language had been explained, agree that this was the very same Faith they had been discussing all along. Quite beautiful really!

    Secondly though, all this was rooted in an understanding that, because God has revealed Himself as man, that the revelation in Christ not only shows us what it is to be truly God, but what it is to be truly human as well, thus giving us a fuller understanding of what it means for us to have been made in the image and likeness of God – Jesus Christ is the always-intended archetype of humankind, the summit of God’s creative work, and bringing us freely to become more like Him, through grace, is the whole work of redemption, which itself is a completion and perfection of the creation.

    As you say:

    Knowledge of the existence of God is given to all Men in their immortal soul. It is our desire to be our own ‘god’ that leads many to deny their Creator’s existence!!
    Sin is indeed “born in the will” and based on a “lie”.

    The restoration of the divine image within us, still ‘in Adam’, so that we may be fully ‘in Christ’ and partake in the very life of God so that we do mirror His likeness, is not only the completion of that rudimentary knowledge of God in the souls of humans, but at the same time the revelation of what it really is to be human, and thereby to reject once and for all that very lie! Again, such a beautiful thing!🙂

  4. kathleen says:

    Yes, Michael, breathtakingly beautiful indeed!🙂

    Thank you again for opening our eyes with such an in-depth and insightful analysis via these four Church Fathers to the amazing and wondrous mysteries of our Glorious Faith.

    Sin and suffering blur our senses and reason to the Truth of God and His Love for mankind. ‘A humble and contrite heart’ is absolutely vital in order to search through our confused, wounded, and worldly hearts to discover that everything falls into perfect place once we uncover the lies of the Evil One and ‘see’ the light of Truth. As you affirm, the Church has always taught these marvellous truths of Man created in the “Image and Likeness” of God, though it needed many Church Councils and years of profound study and clarifying documents to lay them out so succinctly.

    Would that everyone should find this priceless treasure: that God, Who “so loved the world, as to give his only begotten Son; that whosoever believeth in him, may not perish, but may have life everlasting” (John 3:16), has given us His Church to forever keep and uphold His Divine Law in Her eternal teachings and Sacred Liturgy.

  5. Robert says:

    “Knowledge of the existence of God is given to all Men in their immortal soul”
    Also with this knowledge is commonly found the need for sacrifice etc..
    Our Lord therefor did Not come to prove the existence of God. He came because of the Fall of Adam and Eve CREATED by God, He revealed the Trinity and the Resurrection.

  6. kathleen says:

    Our Lord therefor did Not come to prove the existence of God. He came because of the Fall of Adam and Eve CREATED by God, He revealed the Trinity and the Resurrection.

    Yes, dear Roger, I think that this is implicit in what Michael and I have been saying, even if we have not spelt it out as such.

  7. Michael says:

    Kathleen @ 13:55, December 7th:

    Agreed with all the above! Especially your final paragraph🙂

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