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I had intended for today’s post in our 2016 Advent Calendar to focus on the tasty seasonal treats we enjoy as Christmas draws nearer. One I had in mind was marzipan, the almond paste used in so many European treats and particularly popular at Christmastime. Marzipan is one of those things that people either love or really do not like. I love it.
Another subject would be Stollen, the thick, somewhat dry cake with fruit, nuts, and often a marzipan center. Coated in butter and rolled in sugar, it’s incredibly delicious. The history of Stollen is intertwined with the dietary restrictions of Advent, a fasting season which precluded use of butter. Bakers could not create such masterpieces without butter, and after ardent appeals to several popes, Pope Innocent VIII finally relented in the famous “Butter Letter” of 1490. The most celebrated Stollen still comes from Dresden and bears the name Striezel, reflected in the unusual name given to Dresden’s 582-year old Christmas market: Striezelmarkt.
All of this would have made good material for a post during Advent’s last week, a time when preparing for Christmas overtakes most kitchens. But then on December 19, a Christmas market in Berlin was the target of a cowardly and tragic attack. The count rests now at 12 dead and far more injured, some of whom will never again have normality in their lives due to this violence.
If you follow my posts, you know that I often write about Christmas markets, most recently describing this year’s construction of the Weihnachtsmarkt in our town of Weimar and about the market in Charlemagne’s town of Aachen. In addition, I returned just days ago from leading a lovely Christmas market tour for the Smithsonian from Paris to Luxembourg and then along the Mosel and Rhine Rivers. These annual holiday markets draw tourists, for sure, but they cater mostly to local residents with food, warm drinks, tiny rides for toddlers, festive displays, and kiosks filled with folk crafts and seasonal wares. While staying in Weimar before the tour began, I went daily with family and friends to stroll through the charming Christmas market.
And suddenly a scene of sweetness and cheer becomes one of horror, transformed by a deliberate act of malevolence. The Berlin Christmas market chosen as a target was clustered around a prominent German memorial site—the Kaiser Wilhelm Gedächtniskirche, a church bombed in 1943. The ragged steeple was left in partial ruins to remind passersby of the horrors of World War II and to symbolize peace and hope in its aftermath. The irony of an act of terrorism at that site is lost on no one.
Each person in my tour group received a letter before the trip to inform us of the intelligence concerns that a terrorist act involving Christmas markets across Europe was a real possibility. Occasional anxious talk about the subject arose within my group, but all of us became so immersed in the beauty and delight of these markets, we put our fears to the side. I confess to thinking, once I boarded the plane to come home, that the threat had been overcome.
But I now am recalling an iconic line by the 5th-century AD Roman author Macrobius: Numquam periculum sine periculo vincitur (Danger is never surpassed without danger). The abstract fear that something “could happen” turned in an instant into an ugly scar that long will evoke fear in all who cross the site.
We struggle to understand such events that bubble up from an abyss of evil, as though understanding them might somehow lessen the pain they cause or protect us in the future. We wonder how to respond to the questions inevitably posed by our children.
Yet, we need to recall that Advent is a season of preparation, a time to ask the questions that seem to defy answers:
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)
So, let us give thanks for the good fortune most of us enjoy on most days. It’s all too easy to forget those blessings. Let us offer our condolences and prayers for those whose lives are shattered. Adults understand the efficacy of such actions, so teaching them to our children needs to be a priority.
And above all, as Berlin absorbs this blow and sifts through her devastation, let us remember that our only our sure hope lies in the Child whose symbolic figure will be placed in tens of thousands of manger scenes at Christmas Eve services across the world. Some of those services will be held right around the corner in secure and pleasant neighborhoods. But many will be celebrated in places that present danger on a daily basis to both Christians and all “men of good cheer.” We have much to learn from those who go forth daily into the midst of these dangers, keeping a solid hold on Divine support with each step.