BONHOEFFER’S LAST CHRISTMAS – AND HOPE

A Sermon preached at the Midnight Service, December 24th-25th, 2019, at Holy Ascension Hyde, by Canon Gary Philbrick.

Tit 2:11-12, Lk 2:1-14

75 years ago tonight, at Christmas 1944, the German Pastor and Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was spending what turned out to be his last Christmas imprisoned in a Gestapo Prison in the Prinz-Albrecht-Strasse in Berlin.  He was well-known in Germany, and in other parts of Europe and America, had been a Pastor to the German Lutheran Church in London, and was very involved in the Oecumenical Movement in Europe, at that time in its infancy.  A couple of months earlier he had been moved from the Tegel Military Prison in Berlin to the much harsher and more dangerous Gestapo Prison, from which, the following April, a few days before the end of the Second World War, he was taken to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp, and at the very end to Flossenbürg, where he was murdered on the personal orders of Hitler after a very brief show trial.

I’m thinking about him quite a lot at the moment, partly because it’s 75 years since all these events happened, and his martyrdom shouldn’t be forgotten, and partly because I foolishly agreed to deliver a paper on him to an academic theological society in the Spring.

What was this Pastor, Theologian, Oecumenist and Teacher, doing in prison?  Since the rise of Hitler in 1933, Bonhoeffer had been part of that section of the Lutheran Church in Germany, called ‘The Confessing Church’, which had opposed Hitler and all that he stood for.  The other group, the much larger one, called the ‘German Christians’, also opposed some of what Hitler stood for, but felt that the way to do that was by being part of the system, and hoping to change it from inside.  That’s not an unreasonable strategy, but on this occasion it was horribly wrong.

Since 1933, Bonhoeffer had quietly worked across Europe to let people know what was happening in Germany, and that there were people who were resisting it.  He was part of the Abwehr, in effect a double-agent, pretending to be part of German Intelligence, but in effect working for those who opposed Hitler.  He also, strikingly, and felt it was part of his Christian duty, was a peripheral part of plots to kill Hitler – although this wasn’t discovered by Hitler until April 1945, which was what sent him into an absolute rage, and led to his order to kill Bonhoeffer about three weeks before he himself committed suicide.

75 years ago, at Christmas 1944, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, the very last piece of writing of his which we have, and enclosed a remarkable poem, which is now sung as a hymn in Germany, the first and last verses of which read:

With every power of good to stay and guide me,

Comforted and inspired beyond all fear,

I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,

And pass, with you, into the coming year.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

An oh, most surely on each new-born day.

[Bonhoeffer, Metaxas, p.497f.]

They’re so profound, and so full of faith and hope and love, I’ll read them again.

Now, as well as wanting to remember Bonhoeffer, I’ve spent some time describing him and his last poem because of the unshakeable sense of hope which is found in his writings, a hope that is reflected in the Christmas story.

We began this Service with some Responses: ‘Tonight we are excited…  Tonight we are expectant…  Tonight we are on tiptoe…’  We began on a note of hope.

And as the first four Advent Candles were lit, we said ‘Waiting for your promise, give light and hope’.

And in the Gospel Reading we’ve just heard, we celebrate the birth of a child – always a cause for hope – but this child was the one of whom the angels said to the shepherds, ‘I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’.  This child is a sign of hope for the world.

As we can read in Richard Crashaw’s words on the front of our Order of Service:

Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, Day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.

Great little one whose all-embracing birth
Brings earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.

And our first Reading, from the little-known Letter of Titus, says ‘We wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’.

In these weeks after the General Election, in these weeks leading to our formal departure from the European Union, in these uncertain and changing times, we need to keep hold of a sense of hope – the hope we see in the birth of Jesus, in the knowledge that Emmanuel, God is with us; in the knowledge that no matter what difficulties we go through in our own lives, God is still there, and cares sufficiently to send his own Son in to the world to bring us hope. 

We need to radiate hope in our own, lives, by the way we live – not pretending there are no difficulties in life, but trying to remember that those difficulties can be seen in the wider canvas of God’s plan for us, for now and for eternity.

We, as Christians, should stand for hope – because we know that Jesus, our Incarnate God, Emmanuel, God with us, came into the world at Christmas, preached a Kingdom of love and hope, died on a Cross on Good Friday and rose again on Easter Day to bring hope to all the world.  We stand for hope, and we should be working for hope, in our worship, in our communities, and in all that we do and are.

As Bonhoeffer wrote in his last poem:

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,

Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.

At even and at morn God will befriend us,

An oh, most surely on each new-born day.

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