“I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give…” These words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran theologian and pastor, in December, 1943, from a Nazi prison, where he was incarcerated for his vocal opposition to Adolf Hitler.
Bonhoeffer would never be reunited with the fiancé to whom he was writing. The Gestapo hanged him 14 days before advancing American troops liberated Flossenbürg concentration camp, in the spring of 1945.
“Now that we have nothing to give,” his letter continued, “the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious. The emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: ‘We are beggars; this is true.’ The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.”
Bonhoeffer’s letters from prison were later collected into a book, “God Is In the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas.” Even to a reader not blessed with the gift of faith, his words resonate during a time of prolonged adversity. “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent,” he reflected, in a reference to the liturgical season leading up to Christmas.
It is only with the lazy imprecision of self-pity that we can draw analogies between prison cells and the homes in which many of us have once again begun to isolate ourselves. (And such a comparison is genuinely impossible for any who have ever laid eyes on the inside of an actual jail, much less a concentration camp.)
Moreover, it is a threadbare platitude to remind anyone that current troubles could be worse. But a related (and less-often invoked) truth is still worth noting: When it has been worse, others have refused to let hope slip from their grasp, and managed to accomplish this with far less reason than we now have.
Bonhoeffer counsels patience and humility: “Not everyone can wait,” he admits. “Neither the sated nor the satisfied nor those without respect can wait. The only ones who can wait are people who carry restlessness around with them.”
“And then,” he predicts, “just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light, because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment.”
“Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?” Bonhoeffer asks. “Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger. Whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”
In the last letter that his persecutors allowed Bonhoeffer to send to the woman he loved (on December 19, 1944), he wrote, “these will be quiet days in our homes. But I have had the experience over and over again that the quieter it is around me, the clearer do I feel the connection to you. Therefore you must not think that I am unhappy. What is happiness and unhappiness? It depends so little on the circumstances; it depends really only on that which happens inside a person. I am grateful every day that I have you, and that makes me happy.”
Here’s wishing that during these quiet days, the connections that sustain us do not merely survive, but are strengthened and made clearer by the unaccustomed hush of a holiday that portends to be slightly less festive, and a tad more restive, than tradition would ordinarily demand.
The Broadsheet will pause publication for the holiday season, and return to your inboxes and lobbies on January 3.