Published November 26, 2021
This year Christmas – sorry, make that the holidays – began in early October. That’s when I saw my first pre-Black Friday ad. Yes, it seemed a little premature. But it’s never too early to buy stuff. And in a troubled economy, indulging our appetites by purchasing more of anything is a kind of real time, patriotic, very practical Pledge of Allegiance. Speaking for myself, though, I like to “make straight the way” to the autumn festivities by rereading two of my favorite seasonal texts.
The first is Neil Postman’s classic religious essay, “The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar,” about a hapless housewife using the wrong detergent for her husband’s white shirts. It’s collected here. As Postman notes, “Television commercials are a form of religious literature. To comment on them in a serious vein is to practice hermeneutics, the branch of theology concerned with interpreting and explaining the Scriptures.”
Most important TV commercials, he says – and let’s remember that holiday commerce has a salvific role for many businesses – “take the form of religious parables organized around a coherent theology. Like all religious parables, they put forward a concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of heaven. They also suggest what are the roots of evil, and what are the obligations of the holy.”
In television-commercial parables, the root cause of evil is Technological Innocence, a failure to know the particulars of the beneficent accomplishments of industrial progress. This is the primary source of unhappiness, humiliation, and discord in life. And, as forcefully depicted in the Parable of the Ring, the consequences of technological innocence may strike at any time, without warning, and with the full force of their disintegrating action.
Just when, as a religious people, we replaced our faith in traditional ideas of God with a belief in the ennobling force of Technology is not easy to say. . .[but TV commercials] constitute the most abundant literature we possess of our new spiritual commitment.
Like other ancient religious texts, “The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar,” now nearly forty years old, has lost some of its social context. Feminist critics and gender-studies scholars might judge this particular parable harshly. Nonetheless, it does teach a key principle of modern American orthodoxy: Desiring stuff is good; acquiring stuff is better; and more and newer of the right stuff is best. Anything less is suspect.
There is of course another, if less commercial, way of thinking about the season that begins this Sunday. Once widely known as “Advent,” it’s still, remarkably, called that by Catholic followers of Jesus and some of their Christian cousins.
Which brings me to Alfred Delp and Advent of the Heart, the second and far more moving text I turn to every year at this time.
Americans have never lived through political dictatorship. The last war on our soil ended over 150 years ago. Thus it’s hard for many of us to imagine life in the totalitarian regimes of the last century. But they, and the catastrophic savagery they inflicted, were very real, as documented by witnesses from Elie Wiesel to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. The Third Reich murdered millions of innocent victims and thousands of Christian martyrs. A few, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian, are well known. Alfred Delp, the German Jesuit priest, ranks high among them.
Advent of the Heart is a collection of Delp’s Advent writings from 1933, the year the Nazis took power in Germany, to December 1944, just weeks before his death. The included texts are a diary of Delp’s faith. They reveal a soul, even under brutal duress, filled with penetrating clarity, charity, courage, and beauty. In his 1933 play for young people, “The Eternal Advent,” Delp wrote:
How should we celebrate the holiday
toward which we are hurrying?
May we learn to celebrate it
free of the avalanche of trinkets
with which, all too easily, people bury
the great meaning of this holy day.
May we stand face to face with
the great, holy reality of Christmas.
Advent of the Heart includes Delp’s notes on Advent from 1935, along with his Advent Sunday homilies and meditations from 1941-44, and his Advent reflections from Tegel prison in the last weeks of his life. As the war turned against Germany, Allied bombing raids increased, and Nazi repression of internal dissent hardened. Delp continued to stress three Advent themes: gratitude for the gift of life; hope and joy in the expectation of Christmas; and unshakeable confidence in the Second Coming of Christ, his triumph, and his justice.
In 1942-43, backed by his Jesuit superior, Delp joined the Kreisau Circle, a Christian resistance group focused on building a de-Nazified Germany after the war. With many others, he was arrested in July 1944 after a failed assassination attempt against Hitler, though he had no part in it. He was interrogated and tortured for six months. He wrote some of his Advent meditations in handcuffs, smuggling them out of prison in his laundry. In January 1945, he was convicted of treason and condemned to death by Roland Freisler, the murderous presiding judge of the Third Reich’s People’s Court. On February 2, 1945, Father Alfred Delp was executed by hanging. Less than twenty-four hours later, in a twist of divine justice, Roland Freisler died in a direct hit from an American bomb.
Among Delp’s surviving words are these:
Never will we experience our primeval, homesick yearning for God more actively and alertly than in this season. . . .Advent is the time of the God-seeker. The original longing within every human heart is a great impulse toward the hidden and distant God, a longing to wander in that far-off, forgotten homeland of the soul. That longing is what the Church expresses, both in her inner attitude and the liturgy of this season.
Alfred Delp died believing those words. We can at least try to live them this Advent, and in living them, enter into the real heart of Christmas.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.