The Mystery made present for us for us
Fr. Aldred Delp S.J. Priest and Martyr
The meaning of our Christian holy days is not primarily our external holiday celebration, but that particular mysteries of God happen to us, and that we respond. Something in the deepest center of our being is meant here, more than the exterior symbols can even indicate. Anyone who lacks spiritual eyes, and whose soul has not become open and watchful, will not understand the reason we are so often festive in the cycle of the liturgical year. The Church stands before us with great gestures and great pomp and ceremonial rites. This is only an attempt to indicate something that reaches much deeper and must be taken much more seriously.
We need to celebrate holy days in three ways. First, by recalling a historical event. The feasts are always based on verifiable, historical facts. We should not just get carried away with unbridled enthusiasm. What is really going on? This is a question of discernment and recognition. Seen from God’s perspective, there is always a clearly defined event connected to the mystery, a clear statement intended, a fact. This brings us to the second point. Within all of the foregoing, a great mystery - the Mysterium - is hidden. Something happens between Heaven and earth that passes all understanding. This mystery is made present to us, continues in the world till the end of time, and is always in the process of happening - the abiding Mysterium.
These two points are followed by the third way in which we must consider the feast to be serious and important. Through the historical facts and through the workings of the mystery, the holy day simultaneously issues a challenge to each individual life, a message that demands a particular attitude and an interior decision from each person to whom it is proclaimed.
The Christmas celebration is the birth of the Lord. It is verifiable that Christ was born on this night. The great mystery behind this is the marriage covenant of God with mankind; that mankind is fulfilled only insofar as it has grown into this covenant. Concretely, it is meaningful to establish what this covenant, which began between divinity and humanity on that Holy Night, signifies as a challenge and message for each one of us.
In view of these preconditions, we want to read some passages from the Holy Scriptures about the mystery of Christmas.
1. The Epistle reading for Christmas day Mass: “In many and various ways God spoke in times past to our fathers through the prophets; but in these last days He has spoken to us through a Son, whom He appointed the heir of the cosmos, through whom also He created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of His nature, upholding the universe by His Word of power” (Hebrews 1:1-3). Basically, before moving on to personal devotions and contemplation or reading stories of the Holy Night, one should read these weighty verses of Saint Paul to be spiritually touched by the impact of this holy day we are celebrating. 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. 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 to the world. Christ is the ultimate Word of God to the world. One must let this idea really sink in these days when people are seeking new values. If you take God seriously - this relationship between God and the world - and if you know how important God is to society as well as to private life, then this has to touch you. The ultimate Word of God to the world! God does not contradict Himself and does not repeat Himself. One must use every ounce of willpower to comprehend this, and let this concept sink in: Christ, as the ultimate Word of God to the world.
And Christ came and placed Himself before us as a message. That He came as a child proves how much it matters to God that the message be accepted. From this Holy Night onward, the world has had the possibility of living in nearness to God or living apart from God. The entire Epistle wants to communicate one thing: take this, take what has happened here, really seriously. What came into the world is the very image of the Divine Being, is God Himself. He lifted mankind out of every false order in this consecrated night, in this blessed night. What is said to us here gives life its meaning, individual life as well as the life of all mankind.
The ultimate Word of God to mankind. This idea is expanded upon as follows:
2. The Epistle of Christmas Mass at Dawn: “The goodness and kindness of God our Saviour appeared; He saved us, not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but by virtue of His own mercy” (Tit 3:4-7).
The impact of these facts is further developed in two ways. What does this mean for man’s inner reality, where he must come to an understanding of himself? And what does it mean for the fundamental attitudes toward life, the point at which the mystery becomes present and calls for a concrete response? To begin with the first question: What has happened to the measure of our being, through this Word that God has spoken into the world? The goodness and loving-kindness of God have appeared, so that we know and seriously must recognize ourselves as the substance of a divine commitment to man. Since then, God has taken no other position in relation to us than this “benignitas et humanitas [goodness and lovingkindness]”. Because God’s commitment upholds each and every one of us, even to the extent of His sharing in the very poorest and most helpless phase of human infancy, He has fully realized and made Himself accessible in the Incarnation. And now, in the background, our great, gruesome time stands up.
“Not because of deeds done by us in righteousness, but by virtue of His own mercy” (Tit 3:5). The second tiling we need to know is that it is not because man is proud and worthy, but because God upholds us. Man needs to know that we live from grace; we live from God’s merciful commitment to mankind, from His mercy. Not as miserable wretches, however, but renewed in spirit; so that we know our intrinsic dignity, know that we are raised up above and beyond all else, because we mean so much to God. This is how we attain maturity in the presence of God.
3. Now (in the Epistle of the Mass of Christmas during the night) the effect of the foregoing is described. We will not be abused and violated, not even forced to be good or forced to love. We are challenged to do so, but it calls for a decision. The grace of God our Savior “teaches us to renounce godlessness and to live moral, upright, and pious lives in this world” (Tit 2:12). There are three great fundamental attitudes there, three great, foreign qualities of Christians in the world, three great commandments for perfection of life.
First [renouncing godlessness]: if the meaning of our lives is that God is really in covenant with mankind, then there can be no more godlessness - that would be loss of being - there is no more will to live. Godlessness is a calumniation of the divine life.
Second [regarding moral, upright, and godly living]: man should recognize that his innermost purpose is to find the way home to God and to be caught up in His life, to seek God for Himself. The fundamental concept of man in this world never can be that of certainty, but rather that of waiting for this ultimate revelation of that which began in the Holy Night. Such people, who know they are hastening to meet a great fulfilment, are always people under way.
Third [to become His own followers]: these are people of loneliness, the people whom God wanted to have as His people, gripped by a great passion that God be well pleased, and ablaze with the divine fire that will be cast upon the earth.
And now, here is the last question: What does all of this mean today - the message of the great Kyrios, the Lord, the message of the fundamental attitude that the Holy Night demands? This is no Christmas life today. Neither is it a Christmas life according to people’s inner attitude. Neither is it a Christmas holy day according to a religious perspective. The world is hostile and rejects everything. But we are experiencing the other side of Christmas. All of these blessings have already been taken away, and the night has descended again.
The first message is that the Kyrios, the Lord, is coming. The Lord does not stand in the center anymore. He is replaced by the power brokers. How man keeps lapsing into heresy! The power brokers, under whose power man has gone astray, stand in the center. One no longer sees God as the center of the world, as the foundational support. And what has developed out of this? We are standing without any foundation - we have nothing permanent anymore. There is no more talk of man’s life being dependent upon mercy. Therefore the world has become so unmerciful. When has anyone taken away more from man than this? This is a time in which “apparuit benignitas et humanitas [the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appearing]” is no longer acknowledged. What has become of man, that he does not want to be human in relation to God anymore? Beforehand, the Christmas words were sent packing [references to Nazi regulations restricting or forbidding Christian practice and customs.] This is a world in which it no longer can be said that “we await the great revelation of the Lord”, a world that must cling to each day because it already knows that, in mere seconds, everything can be over. There is nothing left of peace and security. This is a world that no longer knows of the Holy Night, of the Consecration-Night, the Christ-Mass [The German word for Christmas is Weihnacht, but Fr. Deip wrote "WeiheNacht" (Consecration-Night)]. That is the one thing that we honestly have to see. The world in which we stand is un-Christmaslike, not because God is unmerciful, but rather because man has outlawed the message, and there is no room anymore for the promise.
Nevertheless, we must also look at this in a positive way. For us personally, this message of the Holy Night still does contain its great meaning and content. There are two things we need to have in terms of consciousness and attitude, and we should take possession of them today: we should not come to Midnight Mass as if we do not live in the year 1942. The year must be redeemed along with everything else. And from the Gloria, we have to take with us the peace and faith in the glory of God. There is nothing else that surpasses this night, and nothing that should be taken as more important than this event. Whatever may happen around us, let us not break down, for then we would not be taking the Lord seriously, or what we know about consecrated people seriously, or what we know about these messages. Therefore, deep down, we are the people who are comforted; and we are the last refuge for the homeless people who do not know anything about the Lord anymore. May we know about the indisputable fact of this Child and not let ourselves be disconcerted, not even by our own great un-freedom. “Apparuit benignitas et humanitas [the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior appearing]” (Tit 3:4). That should find its expression in the positive attitudes we take with us from this experience of the Holy Night. May we impart the goodness. May we attend to humanity again, and witness to the Lordship of God again, and know of His grace and mercy, and have gentle hands for other people again. And may we go away from Christmas Eve with the consolation that we mean so much to God that no external distress can rob us of this ultimate consolation. Our hearts must become strong, to make the divine heartbeat into the law of life again. God’s readiness is established, but our gates are locked.
Fr. Alfred Delp, S.J., priest and martyr.
Fr. Alfred Delp was a German Jesuit priest who was imprisoned in Berlin. Accused of conspiring against the Nazi government, he was arrested in 1944, tortured, imprisoned, and executed on Feb 2, 1945.