Alfred Delp who was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1907, was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in Munich at the age of twenty-nine. He had hoped to continue his studies after ordination but was prevented for political reasons. Instead Father Delp went to work for the Jesuit publication “Voice of the Times.”
On July 20, 1944 an unsuccessful plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler resulted in the arrest of over 7,000 suspected members of the German resistance movement. Due to his association with the Kreisau Circle, a gathering of intellectuals planning for a new social order after the fall of the Third Reich, Alfred Delp found himself among those the Gestapo put in prison.
During the six months of his imprisonment before his execution on February 2, 1945, Delp was able to smuggle out of prison a series of letters and reflections. Due to the time of year in which Delp wrote, much of his writing focused on the seasons of Advent and Christmas.
In December 1944 after having spent five months in Tegel Prison in Berlin, Delp wrote, in what is probably a profound understatement,
This year the temptations toward a picturesque Christmas are probably reduced.
It is tempting to want to cling to our childhood vision of Christmas. It seems tragic that Christmas should be robbed of any of its pure innocence and beauty. But, even in this beautiful season of the year, Father Delp was determined to look honestly at the harsh realities of the world in which he lived. He acknowledges in a series of hard rhetorical questions that the beauty of Christmas has not changed the painful realities of much of human history.
The harshness and coldness of life have hit us with a previously unimaginable force. Some of us, whose homes cannot even offer the cold shelter of the stable in Bethlehem anymore, perhaps begin to forget the picturesque little ox and little donkey and to approach the quesiton of what Christmas is really all about. Is the world more beautiful and life healthier because of that first Christmas? Because the angels finally and publicly sang their Gloria? Because the shepherds awestruck, ran and adored? Because King Herod panicked and murdered little children?
Who could blame Father Delp for his dark vision of the world after five years living in Nazi dominated Germany.
But he does not end on this dark note. Even in prison, suffering under the vicious totalitarian regime of Adolf Hitler, Delp maintains that suffering and pain have important work to do in our lives and that this work will only be accomplished if we are willing to face honestly the sometimes harsh realities of life even at Christmas.
Release of tension (whether through avoidance, indifference, resignation, insensitivity, physical atrophy, destruction of the metaphysical nerves, overexertion,or weariness with life) is one of the deadly wounds from which modern man is bleeding to death. Eliminating the tension that strained one to the last nerve may have seemed life a relief at first, like liberation from an uncomfortable burden. Yet over time, one cannot avoid recognizing that these burdens are among the fixed conditions and prerequisites of life.
If we are to truly live, we need to be willing to hold the tension of the fact that things are not always as we might hope they would be. Life is often painful, difficult, and messy. “These burdens are among the fixed conditions and prerequisites of life.” We can rail against them, fight with all our might to make the world different than we know it is, or we can accept the realities of life as they present themselves and live from that place of honesty, openness and surrender.
Like Father Delp in Germany in 1944, many people in the world today can only anticipate a harsh Christmas. It is important, particularly for those of us for whom Christmas may be less of a struggle, to hold tenderly the reality of suffering that this season embodies for so many.