In 1944, in Berlin, a young Jesuit priest named Alfred Delp went to prison for resisting the Nazi government. He had long been writing and preaching under government surveillance. The publication he edited had been shut down. There had been Gestapo agents in the pews, listening to his sermons. He expressed himself as carefully as he could to avoid arrest, but he had finally been taken into prison, where for several months he awaited execution. In prison, his hands were kept cuffed, and the lights were kept on him round the clock. Friends smuggled in small amounts of bread and wine so he could celebrate the Mass in his cell. They smuggled out tiny slips of paper on which he somehow managed to write messages of hope and reflections on the Gospel.
At just this time of year, with Christmas coming, Father Delp wrote about a subject that was particularly dear to him. His arms crossed painfully in handcuffs, under the eye of the prison guards, Father Delp wrote these words: “More [than ever before], and on a deeper level than before, we really know this time, that all of life is Advent.” Advent, for Father Delp, was a time of being, as he said, “shaken awake” and forced to know the truth about the world in which he lived.
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
We are all shaken awake by something, or at least what we suffer in this life has the potential to awaken us. Often we think of this awakening as deeply personal: we lose our jobs, someone dies—one minute we are living side by side, eating and drinking, and the next minute one of us is taken. But there are times, too, when the shaking awake happens at a more public level. We have to face a truth about ourselves and our neighbors and people across the country and beyond our borders. This is one of those times for Americans.
I know this may sound partisan but I don’t exactly mean it that way: this is one of those times. It’s not partisan to say that our recent election has revealed unsettling divisions among us, and has called many of us to reevaluate what we thought we knew about being Americans. And that does matter, even here in church. There is great tension and great uncertainty, and we can’t shut the door on that turmoil. We can’t try to be the Church in isolation from the truth of our lives. Things may be shifting too rapidly for us to speak clearly at present, but we must acknowledge the shift.
Listen again to the voice of Father Delp, not because our moment is somehow equivalent to his, but because he speaks to us from one of the darkest places in human history, a Nazi prison, to tell us that no matter how much the world changes for us, the basics are still there in the coming of Jesus. God’s love reaching through to us to transform us. Our longing to feel God breaking into the world with freedom and healing and forgiveness. The promise of redemption in Christ. We are continually meeting Jesus again, as for the first time. All of life is Advent. The difference is that sometimes we are shaken up enough to know it, and sometimes we aren’t.
But the Church has practiced that feeling of being shaken awake, year after year. There is Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel this morning, telling us in no uncertain terms that we are going to wake up. If we follow Jesus, we are going to wake up. We are going to face uncertainty. We are going to face judgment. We are going to stand before a God who is simply and honestly too much for us, and that experience will involve fear as well as awe. God’s love is actually frightening. No way around that for us, nor should we seek to avoid that unsettling encounter with the living God. God will come to us suddenly. Maybe whenever God comes to us it will feel sudden, and shocking.
But the Church has been moving in us and through us for centuries, calling us to have courage. Calling us to step forward and meet God. Father Delp could speak of his unspeakable time in a Nazi prison as Advent because the life of the Church, the life of the Spirit, was deep down in his bones. It was as close to him as his own breath. It was his life’s blood. And because he was given the great gift of an Advent hope in those final weeks before his execution, he was able to resist evil with genuine courage.
That’s what this lovely, quiet, contemplative season of Advent is for. It’s designed to win us over so that we give in to our longing for God. It trains us to stay awake. It teaches us that our own limited lives—our confused, experimental, uncertain lives—are full of God’s own beauty and power. What we do here is God’s revelation to us about who we really are.
Remember the graces of this place and this moment, and come back here as often as you can. Come back for Lessons and Carols this afternoon. Be moved by what happens within these walls, and know that God has prepared this experience for you. Smell the incense and hear the music. Feel your hands reaching out to take the bread and the cup, and know that you are assenting to the action of God in your life as you say your grateful “Amen.” Know that you are really praying, really struggling to stand honestly before God. You worship in Advent for the sake of the whole struggling world.
Remember, we greet Advent with joy here, as we greet every season of the church year, even when we are being called to special repentance and discipline. We dress up for Advent. We mark the season with solemn, beautiful liturgy. We show that we are on the move in our relationship with Jesus, calling out to him as we put one foot in front of another, Advent Sunday after Advent Sunday. Draw on that power as you make your way through the world. Give God your time, as you pray, and let yourself feel the truth that time is in God’s hands.
The beauty of this season in the Church is a dark, mysterious, mirror of the work God does in your life and in the life of the world. Let it live deep in your bones. Let it be as close to you as your own breath, your life’s blood. When you are shaken awake, remember that waking up feels like this. You wake up here. And the truth to which we awaken is the coming of God for the redemption of our sins, now and forever.
Preacher by Mother Nora Johnson
27 November 2016, The First Sunday of Advent
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia