Advent is a waking up time. In preparation to receive the coming Light, Advent calls us to honesty, self-awareness and consciousness.

Jesus said,

be alert (stay awake) at all times. (Luke 21:36)

Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. (Matthew 24:42)

Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:13)

Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.’ (Matthew 26:41)

Beware, keep alert; for you do not know when the time will come. (Mark 13:33)

And what I say to you I say to all: ‘Keep awake.’ (Mark 13:37)

Jesus called his followers to pay attention to their lives, to have eyes-wide-open to what was going on around them, among them and within their hearts.

In his “Afterword” to The Journal of  Hélène Berr,” David Bellos attempts to understand what made Hélène and her family stay on in Paris long after it was so obviously dangerous for Jews to remain in France.

Bellos suggests,

The Journal is a precious and perhaps unique record of denial – of Hélène’s initial unwillingness to see what was staring her in the face – and of the blindness of her family, her immediate milieu among the élite of Paris students and then, more broadly, of her neighbours, her colleagues at the U.G.I.F. (L’Union générale des israélites de France – representative council of Jewish organizations intended by the Nazis to fill the role of the Judenrat, the “Jewish Governments” in the ghettoes of Eastern Europe), her whole community, its policemen and officials. For that reason, it is also an historic document showing just how the Final Solution was imposed: by incremental stealth, by secrecy, in an atmosphere of utter confusion. It explains and demonstrates how so many people really did not know what was going on before their eyes. 

It was just as impossible for Hélène Berr to know what Auschwitz meant as it is impossible for us not to know. Her Journal is overshadowed by dramatic irony worthy of Sophocles. We should resist the temptation of wishing that the young woman had understood sooner and drawn the conclusions that, with the hindsight we cannot now disown, we think we would have reached in time.

The text of Hélène’s Journal, however, calls into question Bellos’ thesis that she fell prey to the Nazis because she was in denial.

On Friday 12 November, 1943, Hélène herself wrote of others who, in her view, were unwilling to see the truth of the Jewish situation in France:

After lunch Mme Agache came rushing in because she had just heard that young Mme Bokanowski, who had been sent to the Hôpital Rothschild with her two infants when her husband was in Drancy, had been taken back to Drancy. She asked Maman: “You mean to say they are deporting children?” She was horrified.

It’s impossible to express the pain that I felt on seeing that she had taken all this time to understand, and that she had only understood because it concerned someone she knew. Maman presumably felt the same thing I did and replied: “We have been telling you so for a whole year, but you would not believe us.”

Not know, not understanding even when you do know, because you have closed a door inside you, and you only can realize what you merely know if you open it. That is the enormous drama of our age. Everyone is blind to those being tortured. 204

Whoever in this sad history of violence and betrayal may have fallen prey to an unwillingness to see reality, Bellos’ concluding reflection is a profound Advent warning. Bellos writes:

Smugness is not a useful reaction to this searing work. We should rather pause and ask: Are we sure we know what is going on before our eyes? (Berr, Hélène, The Journal of Helene Berr (trans. David Bellos) Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008, 290, 291)

Advent calls us to be willing to see “what is going on before our eyes.” It challenges us to live in the cold hard light of reality and refuse to seek escape in the denial and fantasy that fuel so much contemporary culture.

This is the season of honesty, the season in which we stop pretending, hiding, and denying. As we open to the reality of what is, the obstacles to Love’s work in our lives begin to fall away. Our hearts open more deeply to that power that is born in Jesus. Christmas happens all over again.

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