We are talking about the birth of a child,
Not the revolutionary acts of a strong man,
Not the breathtaking discovery of a sage,
Not the pious act of a saint.
It really passes all understanding: The birth of a child
Is to bring the great turning around of all things,
Is to bring salvation and redemption to the whole human race.
What kings and statesmen, philosophers and artists,
Founders of religion and moral teachers vainly strive for,
Now comes about through a newborn child.
In his 1933 sermon on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us that the turning point in human history arrived when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. A baby, born to ordinary parents, Mary and Joseph, transformed our world in a way that had never happened before.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German theologian, professor and Protestant pastor who, after living in London from 1933-1935, returned to Germany and became a part of the anti-Hitler resistance movement. Bonhoeffer’s Magnificat sermon is a summons to radical love and discipleship. “God is not ashamed of human lowliness. He enters right into it. He chooses a human being to be his instrument and works his wonders where they are least expected.”
- How might the lowliness of the birth of the Christ child bring about a great turning around in your life?
“Jesus Christ is the love of God become human for all men and women, and hence he is not a preacher of abstract ethical ideologies, but the concrete executor of the love of God.”
- What might our world look like today if you and I became serious about our call to be concrete executors of the love of God?
“The joy of God has passed through the poverty of the manger and the torment of the cross; and so it is unconquerable, irrefutable.”
- Could it be that only by becoming a servant and giving ourselves away that we are able to transform our world?
“Mighty God is the name of this child. The child in the manger is none other than God himself… Where is the divinity, where is the strength of this child? In the divine love, in which he became just like us. His poverty in the manger is his strength. In the strength of love, he overcomes the chasm between God and humanity.”
- How can our own poverty of spirit become our greatest strength and gift to others?
Bonhoeffer was arrested by the Nazis in 1943 and was confined to the Tegel military prison in Berlin where he wrote many letters. On December 17, 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents.
“From the Christian point of view, spending Christmas in a prison doesn’t pose any special problem. Most likely, a more meaningful and authentic Christmas is celebrated here by many people than in places where only the name of the feast remains… God turns toward the very places from which humans tend to turn away. Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him at the inn. A prisoner can understand all this better than other people.”
- Have you ever experienced a Christmas that seemed to be depressing or dark but in retrospect turned out to be a deeply meaningful and spiritual encounter with the divine?
During Bonhoeffer’s last Christmas in 1944, he wrote a poem, By Benevolent Powers.
Faithfully and quietly surrounded by benevolent powers
Wonderfully guarded and consoled,
Thus will I live this day with you
And go forth with you into another year…
Still will the past torment our hearts
Still, heavy burdens of bad times depress us,
Ah, Lord, give our startled souls
The grace for which we were created…
With warmth and light let flame today the candles
That you have brought into our darkness.
If it can be, bring us together once again!
We know your light is shining in the night.
On April 9, 1945 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by the Nazis at the Flossenburg Concentration Camp in Germany, only days before the American liberation of the camp. At the time of his execution, Bonhoeffer asked a fellow inmate to relate a message to Bishop George Bell of Chichester, “This is the end – for me the beginning of life.”
May the mystery, holiness, and joy of Christmas prompt in your spirit a “Great Turning Around of All Things.” Through Christ, may your poverty become your strength, may your weakness become your hope, may your darkness lead you to the light shining in the night, and may the baby Jesus beckon you to the grace for which you were created.
The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Monday, January 6.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Mystery of Holy Night, edited by Manfred Weber and translated by Peter Heinegg, New York, The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997, p. 27.
2 Ibid, p. 12.
3 Ibid, p. 18.
4 Ibid, p. 23.
5 Ibid, p. 39.
6 Ibid, p. 3
7 Ibid, p. 46-47.