24 December 2015

Waiting in Advent 2015
with Dietrich Bonhoeffer (26)

‘The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger’ … the Christmas scene in a stained glass window in the north ambulatory in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

We have come to end of Advent this year and awake this morning [24 December 2015] to Christmas Eve.

Throughout Advent, as we were waiting and prepare for Christmas, I have been inviting you to join me each morning for a few, brief moments in reflecting on the meaning of Advent through the words of the great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945). This has been my own Advent Calendar for this year.

During Christmas 1943, Bonhoeffer was alone in his cell, separated from his family and those he loved. In his cell, he had an Advent wreath and a picture of the nativity by Fra Filippo Lippi, a visual reminder of the Incarnation. He lit two candles in honour of his parents and his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, he hummed some tunes from his favourite hymns, and he read the Christmas story.

A year earlier, during Advent 1942, Bonhoeffer had written a circular letter to some of his friends and former students:

“The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.”

Now, in a Christmas letter to his parents, written on 17 December 1943, he has given up any hope of being free for Christmas, and he writes:

“From a Christian point of view, a Christmas in a prison cell is no special problem. It will probably be celebrated here in this house more sincerely and with more meaning than outside where the holiday is observed in name only. Misery, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something entirely different in the eyes of God than in the judgment of men.

“That God turns directly toward the place where men are careful to turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because he found no room in the Inn – a prisoner grasps that better than someone else. For him it really is a joyous message, and because he believes it, he knows that he has been placed in the Christian fellowship that breaks all the bounds of time and space; and the months in prison lose their importance.

“On Holy Evening [Christmas Eve], I will be thinking of all of you very much, and I would very much like for you to believe that I will have a few beautiful hours and my troubles will certainly not overcome me.

“If one thinks of the terrors that have recently come to so many people in Berlin, then one first becomes conscious of how much we still have for which to be thankful. Overall, it will surely be a very silent Christmas, and the children will still be thinking back on it for a long time to come. And maybe in this way it becomes clear to many what Christmas really is.”

On the night of 25 December, he sent a brief note to his parents, ending his seasonal correspondence with references to kith and kin. “Christmas is over. It brought me a few quiet, peaceful hours, and revived a good many past memories … I lit the candles that you and Maria sent me, read the Christmas story and a few carols that I hummed to myself, and in doing so I thought of you all.”

The Christmas story told in the panels of the colourful triptych that forms the reredos in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, Lichfield Gazette)

Readings (Church of Ireland lectionary): Pslams 45, 46; Baruch 4: 36 to 5: 9 or Isaiah 59: 15b-21; Galatians 3: 23 to 4: 7 or Matthew 1: 18-25.

The Collect of Christmas Eve:

Almighty God,
you make us glad with the yearly remembrance
of the birth of your Son Jesus Christ:
Grant that, as we joyfully receive him as our redeemer,
we may with sure confidence behold him
when he shall come to be our judge;
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post-Communion Prayer:

God for whom we wait,
you feed us with the bread of eternal life:
Keep us ever watchful, that we may be ready
to stand before the Son of Man, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yesterday’s reflection

Series concluded.

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