Bonhoeffer on Christmas and a Wild Idea
The text at the end of this entry is an excerpt from a sermon which Dietrich Bonhoeffer gave in 1933. It was the third Sunday in Advent. His passage was Luke 1:46-55.
The artwork above is by Albrecht Altdorfer, titled "Birth of Christ." It was this particular work that prompted Bonhoeffer to write a letter to his parents on the first Sunday of Advent, in 1943. Writing from Tegel Prison in Berlin, he wondered at the artist's compositional decision. He found it curious that Altdorfer, who lived from 1480 to 1538, against all tradition, had chosen to place the Holy Family in the middle of a dilapidated house. Perhaps the artist meant to say, Bonhoeffer mused, that "Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too."
A few observations. One, there is something wistful about the fact that this great 20th-century theologian was writing his mom and dad. How often do we think, "Hey, Bonhoeffer's got a ma and pa"? Yet there they were, playing their parental role to the end. Two, his insights are made all the more poignant because his death lay four months away. And three, with regard to his sermon of 1933, he exposes the profound misunderstanding of the Incarnation which a certain Anglican church in Auckland, New Zealand, prominently displays on its website, and he brings to light the rash and nonsensical, and, I add, ultimately hopeless, thinking of its rector. The classical view of the Incarnation is 'ridiculous'? Yes, it is ridiculous. Preposterous? I hope so. Implausible? Not necessarily, and certainly not on the logic that an outrageous claim cannot be true. Surely it's not that simple.
I say, to my fellow parson, hail to the God who overturns all desires for a manageable god. I say hail to the God of the poor and the rich. I say hail to the God of our worst enemy, no less than ourselves, and to the God who looks with compassion again and again on all our weak, tired selves. I say hail to the God who, when we've come this close to figuring out the manger and the cross, beaten into cliche by the rite of annual pageants, leaving us un-disturbed, un-fluttered by mystery, entertained, bored, worn out and wandering through the world with thin imaginations, incapable of resisting the powerful, alternate imaginations of our culture, still manages to surprise us with un-bidden grace, confronting our presumption and yet offering us a taste, yet again, of the Life that is truly life. Thank God for Jesus Christ, Deum de Deo, Lumen de Lumine.
And I say bah humbug to the dumbing down of Christmas. It irritates me how quickly our culture, out in the world and in the church too, exchanges peace on earth for stress on earth. Is it really the most wonderful time of the year? I drive around town and find that it's one of the most tiring times of the year. Tired, haggard, distracting, frazzled, burdened with the anxiety of expectations that may never be met. And then there's the ubiquitous pottagy mush of Christmas music. It's about as silly as this dance by Stephen Colbert (courtesy of Travis & Leslie Hines):
Does your average civic religionist know the vicious origin of the carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas"? Probably not. Or the concrete history behind any carol, save "Silent Night"? Unlikely. How can they when, by dint of repetition, carols are flattened into innocuousness.
But here is my wild idea.
Can you imagine if Christians in North American decided one year not to buy any gifts? Let's estimate a conservative number. Say 100 million Christians in the US and Canada did everything else associated with the season but we cut out purchasing gifts. Not a single one. Instead of buying and receiving presents we spent our time, money and energy being together. We served those with less. We shared simple meals, or even extravagant ones. We did things which invigorated our physical bodies. We entertained each other with not a single electronic device, but only whatever instruments or talents were to be had in the room, even if it meant telling really bad jokes all night long. We relished silence. We prayed for the persecuted church around the world. We asked the Holy Spirit to help us attend to the Incarnation; awaken our imaginations with deepened understanding; and give us the grace, for one moment, to experience the freedom from false wants that play havoc on our hearts.
Can you imagine how much time we'd have on our hands if we cut from our schedules running to the stores and surfing the internet for gifts?
Forget "one gift less" efforts? (Although I love what the guys behind "Advent Conspiracy" are on about.) Let's try no gifts. Just one year. Our economy might buckle, sure. And the church would need to be ready to help folks who would suffer. But just think of the new ways that creative energy might be unleashed. Just think how we might arrive at January 1 feeling, well, refreshed.
Well, it surely can't hurt to imagine.
Here, then, is Bonhoeffer's comment on the Magnificat.
"If God chooses Mary as his instrument, if God himself wants to come into this world in the manger at Bethlehem, that is no idyllic family affair, but the beginning of a complete turnaround, a reordering of everything on this earth. If we wish to take part in this Advent and Christmas event, then we cannot simply be bystanders or onlookers, as if we were at the theater, enjoying all the cheerful images.
No, we ourselves are swept up into the action there, into this conversion of all things. We have to play our part too on this stage, for the spectator is already an actor. We cannot withdraw.
What part, then, do we play? Pious shepherds, on bended knee? Kings who come bearing gifts? What sort of play is this, where Mary becomes the mother of God? Where God enters the world in the lowliness of the manger? The judgment of the world and its redemption--that is taking place here.
And the Christ child in the manger is himself the one who pronounces the judgment and the redemption of the world. He repels the great and the powerful. He puts down the mighty from their thrones, he humbles the arrogant, his arm overpowers all the proud and the strong, he raises what is lowly and makes it great and splendid in his compassion.
Therefore we cannot approach his manger as if it were the cradle of any other child. Those who wish to come to his manger find that something is happening within them."