Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #4:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ironic Advent
Bonhoeffer in the yard of Tegel Prison, Berlin, summer 1944.
My interest in, love for, and ongoing dialogue with the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer is well known to my friends. A few years ago, I made a Bonhoeffer pilgrimage in Germany. For years I kept his Letters from Prison close by for late-night reading when I couldn’t sleep. Other years it was the anthology of his works: A Testament of Freedom. One entire year was the mammoth definitive biography by Eberhard Bethge.
*This is not the place to do more than mention my sadness at the way Bonhoeffer’s thought (admittedly open-ended at times) has been simplified and used by readers and writers on the right and left (whatever those terms mean anymore), both theological and political.* If you aren't afraid of reading something thoughtful, I'd recommend you read Karen V. Guth's. "Claims on Bonhoeffer: The Misuse of a Theologian" in Christian Century Online, May 13, 2015. It's title above should be linked to her excellent and fair-minded article.
Advent had always played a special part in the life of Bonhoeffer and his family. The ironic reality, however is that he came to believe that he had never fully understood Advent (and one might even say Christmas and Christianity) until he was in prison. If I might say so, he came more clearly to understand Advent as an ironic sign of the love of God (something I wrote about yesterday in a VERY different way). "Come On, Charlie Brown."
There is much to say about this but not now. Tonight, I just want to share some of Bonhoeffer’s comments (from letters smuggled out of prison by friendly guards). And to provide some very limited commentary on them, especially for people who might not be that familiar with Bonhoeffer’s situation. For those who want some basic background information about Bonhoeffer’s life, thought, and writings, I recommend the short biography included with The Letters and Papers from Prison.
Nov. 21, 1943
Life in a prison cell reminds me a great deal of Advent—one waits and hopes and potters about, but in the end what we do is of little consequence, for the door is shut, and it can only be opened from the outside. This idea has just occurred to me. But you must not think that we go in for symbolism very much here!
Nov. 28, 1943
Advent Sunday. It began with a peaceful night. As I lay in bed yesterday evening I looked up our favorite Advent hymns . . . . Early this morning I held my Sunday service, hung up the Advent crown [wreath] on a nail, and fastened Lippi’s picture of the Nativity in the middle of it [Fra Lippo Lippi's most famous Nativity, "Adoration in the Forest" is included after this passage]. For breakfast I ate the second of your ostrich eggs—I just loved it! Soon after that I was fetched from my cell for an examination which lasted until noon. The recent air raids have brought a series of calamities . . . .
How marvelous that you are home for Advent! I can imagine you singing hymns together for the first time just as this very moment. It makes me think of the Altdorfer Nativity [see below] and the verse:
The crib glistens bright and clear;
The night brings in a new light here.
Darkness now must fade away,
For faith within the light must stay.
And also the Advent melody:
[he provides a measure of music, staff lines and all; sorry I don't know how to reproduce it]
though not in the usual four four time, but in the swinging expectant rhythm [love this] which suits the text so much better.
[The stunning, unexpected, dark, and, may I say, ironic Nativity painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1513 shows the Holy Family in what appears to be a bombed-out building of 1943 Berlin]
In another place Bonhoeffer asks: "How did he [Altdorfer] come to defy tradition in that way four hundred years ago? Was his meaning that Christmas could and should be kept even under such conditions as these? Anyhow, that is his message for us."
December 5, 1943, Advent II
My thoughts and feelings seem to be getting more and more like the Old Testament, and no wonder, I have been reading it much more than the New for the last few months. It is only when one knows the ineffability of the Name of god that one can utter the name of Jesus Christ. It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and the new world. It is only when one submits to the law that one can speak of grace, and only when one sees the anger and wrath of god hanging like grim realities over the head of one’s enemies that one can know something of what it means to love and forgive them.
I don’t think it is too Christian to want to get to the New Testament too soon and too directly. . . . You cannot and must not speak the last word before you have spoken the next to last [this sounds a familiar theme in Bonhoeffer between ultimate things and penultimate, insisting that the penultimate (human culture, family, love, art, marriage, doing justice, etc.) not be swallowed up by our “ultimate” concerns (the so-called Last Things—death, judgement, heaven, and hell)].
A few days later, Bonhoeffer expounded on this theme in a letter that has influenced my life and thinking very deeply. Referring to a pious song with the line “this poor earth is not our home,” Bonhoeffer develops his “Old Testament” idea of taking this “poor earth” very seriously indeed.
Dec. 18, 1943
A very important sentiment, though one which can only come right at the end; for I am sure we ought to love God in our lives and in all the blessings he sends us. We should trust him in our lives, so that when our time comes, but not before, we may go to him in love and trust and joy. [Of course, at this point, Bonhoeffer was very much missing the companionship and bodily presence of friends, family, and his fiancé.]
Speaking frankly, to long for the transcendent when you are in your wife’s arms is, to put it mildly, a lack of taste [!], and it is certainly not what God expects of us. We ought to find God and love him in the blessings he sends us. If he pleases to grant us some overwhelming earthly bliss, we ought not to try and be more religious than God himself. . . . It is arrogance to want to have everything at once—matrimonial bliss, and the cross, and the heavenly Jerusalem . . . . “To everything there is a season.” (Ecclesiastes 3).
Perhaps in another post, I can include Bonhoeffer’s comments on the beloved German poet/hymn writer, Paul Gerhardt. And some of his thoughts, as Christmas was approaching, when he realized that he would not, in fact, be released to be home with his family as he had hoped he would be.
For now, I will close with one of the prayers Bonhoeffer composed for his fellow prisoners that Advent/Christmas season of 1943.
Lord Jesus Christ
You were poor and in misery,
a captive and forsaken as I am.
You know all our distress;
You abide with me
when all others have deserted me;
You do not forget me, but you seek me.
You will that I should know you and turn to you.
Lord, I hear your call and follow you;
The picture below is of the Bonhoeffer children with their mother, Paula. The future theologian and martyr is the blonde!