Watching with spiritual eyes in Advent

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spiritual eyes

“Anyone who lacks spiritual eyes, and whose soul has not become open and watchful, will not understand the reason we are so often festive.” These are the words of Jesuit Father Alfred Delp, which he preached in Munich just before Christmas 1942. I have always found them remarkable.

He preached in dark times, in a place gone dark due to war and hatred and evil and death; in just over two years after speaking these words, the Nazis arrested him, tortured him, and executed him on the feast of Candlemas — a few months shy of the end of the war, a liberation he may have sensed but did not live to see.

Which is why I find the words he preached in 1942 profound. It’s also the lesson.

Preaching in Munich in the middle of the Second World War, Father Delp was able to draw on the liturgical tradition of the Church to remind his people that they have the capacity to see things with “spiritual eyes,” that what they saw with the naked eye was not all there was to see. In a world bombed to rubble and torn apart, Father Delp dared to ask people to open themselves — mystically, no doubt, in such a troubled world — to a world of eternal festivity, of redemption and peace, of the birth of a better king. But this was no escapism or utopianism. Rather, it was a liturgical and mystical act of resistance and hope.

Be watchful and alert

Which is what Advent offers us, especially at the beginning. The lesson from Mark’s Gospel is simple: “Watch!” Jesus says. The Lord says this just a few days before his arrest and crucifixion. With the naked eye one could reasonably think that Jesus was finished, his mission and preaching done for. But no. Instead, Jesus says, “Be watchful! Be alert!” He’s telling those listening, those with even the faintest faith, to see things differently. The crown will look different; the kingdom will look different; the victory will look different — but keep looking, watch! The invitation is to behold a mystery.

December 3 – First Sunday of Advent

Is 63:16-17, 19; 64:2-7

 Ps 80:2-3, 15-16, 18-19

1 Cor 1:3-9

Mk 13:33-37

That’s what Father Delp was doing, what Jesus was doing: inviting people to see things spiritually, mystically, apocalyptically, redemptively — no matter how bad things got. Daring to see the cross as victory, seeing in suffering the stuff of sacrifice and spiritual rebirth: this is a reality open only to those who are contemplative enough to see it, to those with “spiritual eyes.”

And whether you’re in Jerusalem in the first century or in Nazi Germany or in any number of frightening places in 2023, maybe that’s what is always spiritually required of people who believe and hope — to watch for Christ no matter how bad things get. To watch for God in prayer, in the Church, in your parish, in your neighborhood, in your families, even in your in-laws: maybe that’s what this year’s Advent season can do for us. It can remind us that watching for God in all these areas of our lives is still important.

But are we too cowered in fear to watch for signs of God’s advent? I certainly hope not. Father Delp had to draw on the liturgical power of the Church to remember to see with “spiritual eyes.” Which is why going to Mass matters, because we need such reminding too. Because sometimes, we need to be reminded by God to look up; sometimes, we need to remind each other too — to be watchful, to stay watchful.

Because maybe, that’s our job in this strangely scary world — the Christian task — to be the sort of people who are still faithful enough to watch.

Father Joshua J. Whitfield

Father Joshua J. Whitfield is pastor of St. Rita Catholic Community in Dallas and author of “The Crisis of Bad Preaching” (Ave Maria Press, $17.95) and other books.