Message preached at Fellowship Christian Reformed Chruch, Edmonton, AB January 6, 2019.
“Christmas comes even in the midst of rubble.” Those words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents on November 29, 1940. From his monastic haven in the Benedictine community at Ettal, Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the “rubble” in which the Feast of the Incarnation was about to be celebrated. Inside the letter to his parents, Bonhoeffer included an Advent card with the nativity scene painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1511. It shows the Holy Family huddled together in a dilapidated house, which looks for all the world like a modern bomb shelter. Real bombs were then falling all over Europe, and the military success of the Nazi armies during the summer of 1940 promised that the war would not end quickly. There would yet be much more rubble before the nightmare was over.
Bonhoeffer will always be remembered for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, an activity that led to his execution on April 9, 1945. But even in the shadowy work he did as a double agent for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer never lost sight of the fact that he was an ordained Lutheran pastor. As the founding director of an illegal, underground seminary of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer had grown close to the students with whom he shared a unique “life together,” as he titled one of his shorter writings. In August 1937, Heinrich Himmler had issued a decree criminalizing such schools.
Still, Bonhoeffer continued to work with small groups of students that met in isolated, out-of-the-way places such as Sigurdshof in eastern Pomerania. In March 1940, the Gestapo discovered this place too and shut it down. How was he to stay in touch with his scattered flock? Beginning in May 1940 and continuing through November 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of seven circular letters to his dispersed students. Many of them had by then been drafted and sent to the front lines, and a number of them had fallen in battle. Bonhoeffer corresponded as best he could with his former students at the front. From Ettal, he sent greetings and Christmas presents to their wives and children at home.
The circular letters dealt with issues of pastoral and spiritual concern faced by the former seminarians now far removed from the life they had once shared as a close-knit community of love and learning. How does one maintain a daily order of prayer and Scripture reading, so essential to the Christian life, while carrying out the duties of a soldier? What purpose could God possibly have in permitting the deaths of so many young pastors? How could spiritual equilibrium be maintained in the midst of so much suffering and loss? These and other questions Bonhoeffer answered with compassion, insight, and pastoral sensitivity. The circular letter written from Ettal in December 1940 dealt with how to celebrate Christmas amidst the rubble.
This letter is really a minor theological treatise in which Bonhoeffer makes three basic points. First, he places the current crisis in the wider context of contemporary world history, looking back to the beginning of the Great War as the decisive turning point that had brought about such a radical change of life. He has in mind the fruits of total war that had numbed European consciousness in the decades following the guns of August 1914: the glorification of death, the degradation of human life, the worship of power, the erasure of morality and meaning in human discourse. These developments had been at work long before 1939, but the current war had made them palpable. “Just as time-lapse photography makes visible, in an ever more compressed and penetrating form, movements that would otherwise not be thus grasped by our vision,” he wrote, “so the war makes manifest in particularly drastic and unshrouded form that which for years has become ever more dreadfully clear to us as the essence of the ‘world.’”
Second, Bonhoeffer argues that an authentic celebration of Christmas is made possible precisely by the underside of human life revealed by the war. Paul Gerhardt was one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite hymn writers, and Bonhoeffer quotes from his Christmas hymn, “O, How Joyful” in order to clarify what genuine Christmas celebration involves:
joyful, O (you) blessed,
Grace-bringing Christmas time!
The world was lost, Christ is born:
Rejoice, rejoice, O Christendom!
But only in the midst of a world that is lost, a world filled with “woe and danger,” can one joyfully sing with Gerhardt, “Christus ist geboren.” What Bonhoeffer opposes is a sentimental view of Christmas in which all is cozy and well loved, sweet and colorful, lovely and harmonious. In this view, Christmas too easily becomes an “escape to some isle of the blessed.” Bonhoeffer, a pastor himself, finds here a special temptation for the shepherds of God’s flock. “How often the parsonage and pastoral life are just such isles of the blessed. And how often we Germans have made of Christmas just such an island onto which one can escape from the actual reality of life for a few days or at least a few hours.”
Bonhoeffer is holding up for review here the kind of Christmas celebration described by Friedrich Schleiermacher in his famous dialogue Christmas Eve (1826). Family and friends gather around the tree in the glow of lamps and candles. Laughter and singing resound. Happy souls converse serenely, exchanging gifts in a scene all suffused with the spirit of a Jesus meek and mild. Such a view of Christmas is not so much heretical as utterly inadequate. “Our escape has backfired,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “The essence of the world has revealed itself. ‘The world was lost’ is no longer a dogmatic proposition; it is manifestly the reality in which our actual life comes to pass.”
Third, at Christmas, Bonhoeffer means to say, God does far more than provide an enhancement of what we possess already. Christmas is not merely a pretty ornament, an add-on to festivities of the season. “It is no longer fine, colorful pictures and images that matter to us; but out of the concrete reality of need, we thirst for the reality of abundant divine help.” The pastor-soldiers to whom Bonhoeffer was writing were like the children of Israel standing at the Red Sea with Pharaoh breathing fire down their necks as the peril of unknown dangers loomed ahead. Dare they go forward, or perhaps reverse course? Precisely in such a moment, in such a crisis, there is a question to be asked, and an answer to be received:
Whether God truly sent the One who holds the right and power of full, encompassing, conclusive salvation—that is the question we are asking. And the Christmas message is the full, glorious Yes in answer to this question. To hear this Yes in all simplicity and to speak it in all reality is our task, our blessed task, at Christmastime.
So, we are back with the shepherds in Bethlehem, who saw the Child in the manger and believed what they had heard from the angels. The darkness of the world’s night in our own time is no less dark or forbidding for us than it was for the shepherds then. Christmas does not offer an easy and straight path out of the needs and burdens of our life in the world into a perfect paradise.
“We, too, like the shepherds, must again turn back to the old relationships with all their pressures that wound us. Yet if we are given only the shepherds’ Christmas celebration, if we are able only in this way to hear and believe, even so, the Savior is here! God’s hand rests again on the world and will never let it go! Salvation is at hand! The night is far spent; the day is near! The rule of the world has already been denied to the princes of this world and been laid on the shoulders of this child! Then it may be said of us as well as of those shepherds not only that “they returned again” to all the old bitter affliction but also that “they praised and rejoiced in God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them,” in the midst of all personal anguish, in the midst of the world’s night, in the midst of war …”
At this point, our lectionary enters to provide us with guidance as to how to shine in the darkness. At first, Isaiah 60 exhorts us to: “Arise, shine, for your light has come and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you and his glory appears over you.” We are called to awaken in the light of the Lord.
But we are not simply called to awaken; we are also called to “lift up our eyes and look about us”, in other words, to give our attention to our surroundings.
As Isaiah wrote, so this message is brought to us today. Awaken and attend. Arise and be aware of what the Lord is doing, and what he is doing in you. Jesus is born, and salvation is given. How will we respond?
The question that is put before us at this Epiphany is: now that we have met the Savior in the manger, how will we respond?
The response of the Magi after they meet the Lord is telling. After being instructed by Herod to be informants of the location of the new Lord and King, the Magi went to see the baby Jesus. They followed the star to his location, and after having met him, they broke their covenant to Herod. They chose a new orientation to the world because they encountered something altogether new… and eternal… in their midst. They could have returned to Herod with the needed information to ensure security and fodder for a worldly kingdom to exist a little longer. Yet, they didn’t adhere to such temporary concerns, they worshipped and rejoiced, they honored and gave gifts, and they communed with the newly born and manifestly eternal Word of God now in their midst. Truly these were of the wisest.
For aren’t we tempted to actually move away from being awake and aware of the manifest presence of the living Lord? Instead of seeing the presence of God in our midst, as a church body we focus rather on what we could be doing? We focus on attending to meetings, to making sure we have programs and rituals for attendance and participation of everyone. Don’t we indeed ask new people what they can contribute, what they can do, and how we can better meet their needs and they meet ours? Don’t we ask them to fill out forms, often forgetting the items they have already filled on our Sunday to-do list? At least until the next Sunday? For isn’t it a matter of who is doing what next week? And isn’t our biggest contact with church through mediated email rather than in immediate presence, through chores to do rather than people to visit?
If the Epiphany of our Lord is to mean anything, it is to move away from an orientation to chores to an orientation which is awake and aware in the light of the newborn Savior. Christ has come, Christ is present, and he is so in the midst of this dark world.
Our situation is like WW2 like Bonhoeffer, encouraging his pastor-soldiers, found himself in. It is dark, and filled with trouble. We may not be fighting off the Nazis, but the spectre of white nationalism lurks nearby, and possibly within. People aren’t being murdered by the thousands every day, but, by the thousands, people are becoming more isolated, alienated, depressed and anxious. The lie that Jews are second class citizens is no longer being widely told; instead, the multi-headed hydra of the nation-state is being propagated, resorting to a fictional identity politics and destructive oil-based industrial economy that alienates us from each other, the land, and at heart, God!
Due to time constraints, I can only outline suggestions of how Bonhoeffers points of reference still hold in our dark world, i.e. as small epiphanies that emerge in the light of Christ.
- How does one maintain a daily order of prayer and Scripture reading and communion at this juncture of human history?
In this time and place, it seems that the structure of life has been swept over by the overwhelming force of the social world. Social media has colonized the long-reserved places for a thriving private and spiritual source for life. Especially since the advent of the iPhone in 2007, the place where individuals have been nurtured in communal relationships of intimacy with significant others (friends, family, marital partners and lovers) has been eviscerated in feedback cycles of posts to Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn. If you have ever been asked to like and subscribe, you have been asked to sit beside another’s fire but without all the so-called “inconvenience” of intimacy, without dialogue, and without identity formation and development…. that is, without discipleship.
Daily contact with the living Christ is a contact with the God of Scripture, of Fellowship, in particular places in time and history, and away from the arena of mass society which colonizes our private existence. A life of prayer, and fellowship, and scripture advocates itself to us once again because it is in these places that the light of Christ shines in at its clearest, and it is in those times that moments of awareness that change, strengthen and solidify our identities as children of God, and our ability to be with each other emerge. Otherwise we are swept into the mass social consciousness of what we do, and forget how to be together.
- An authentic celebration of Christmas is made possible in response to a dark world, in awareness in the light of Christ.
The emergence of a Christ-centered place, which is at once both private and communal, a place where Christ is born into, is the celebration of Christmas. It is not merely a place of retreat and escape from the work of living in this dark world. It is not an “other-worldliness” for which evangelicals are rightly criticized. Your private world is, like Bonhoeffer has said, an affirming yes to the place of the living Christ in a world that God holds the right and power of full and encompassing salvation, a reality of peace which cares for and nurtures anything that might act as justice.
In other words, Christmas should have this way of gathering each of us, in community and as individuals to the light of Christ, the navigating star which enlightens us to a reality of spiritual life rooted in a relationship with God and nurtured by fellowship, biblical guidance and daily contact with God in prayer and affirmed through worship. To live out of this relationship into the world is the most political act of revolution of a dark world which seeks to define us into identities based in temporal concepts of minorities, consumption and exploitation. The response to the epidemic of anxiety, depression, and loneliness delivered via marketing language of convenience and customer service is a life of joy in community which comes in the inconvenient ways of being together. Instead of responding to Facebook posts, we must then respond to each other. Instead of fearing environmental and spiritual tipping points, we must orient ourselves, in accordance with the Magi, away from the evil relationships. Christmas is not simply visiting a Bethlehem manger; it is the encounter with the eternal Christ and living out that encounter in the world.
- Out of a concrete reality of need we thirst for the abundant reality of divine help.
Our orientation should be towards the miraculous presence of our historical and eternal God. Our particular and historical encounters with the eternal Christ are not unlike the encounters of Bonhoeffer’s pastoral soldiers, many of whom were killed. The abundant reality of divine help made real by the birth of Jesus is not only material help. Christ encounters us in the dark and lonely places of our minds and hearts, i.e., in those places we feel unreached by the human world. In those places, God’s abundance reaches deeply and broadly. In those places, God’s abundant help does not merely reform our relationship with the world, but revolutionizes it. God reaches us there not merely to bring us back to a tolerable co-existence with our earthly home and our social environment and the people we attend church with. God’s help is so abundant there that it revolutionizes our existence in this world. God’s help is full of grace, it isn’t a loan. God’s help loves us as we are, not for what we do. God’s help awakens us and makes us aware of God’s eternal reality running right through our temporal vision of things. God helps us see past a narcissistic president. God’s help orients us past the difficult change of an economy that is addicted to oil. God’s help orients us to the possibility of a world which is filled with loving people, significant others, of belonging and of reconciliation. God’s help is also a healing: a healing of loss, a healing of abuse, a healing of bones, a healing of addiction, a healing of oppression. As a church, the epiphany today is to be revolutionized by God which orients us to being with God, instead of doing for God. God’s help, in being with God, is abundant. It is the ultimate response of an encounter with the eternal Christ to a world which exists without Christ, that is, a world which experiences profound lack.
Today, I invite you to encounter the living and eternal Christ, and be in the world with the gracious and abundant help of God, awake and aware that the light of Christ is not only in the manger but is shining on, and in, you.