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“Christmas comes even in the midst of rubble.” Those words were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer to his parents on November 29, 1940. From his monastic haven in the Benedictine community at Ettal, Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the “rubble” in which the Feast of the Incarnation was about to be celebrated. Inside the letter to his parents, Bonhoeffer included an Advent card with the nativity scene painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1511. It shows the Holy Family huddled together in a dilapidated house, which looks for all the world like a modern bomb shelter. Real bombs were then falling all over Europe, and the military success of the Nazi armies during the summer of 1940 promised that the war would not end quickly. There would yet be much more rubble before the nightmare was over.

Bonhoeffer will always be remembered for his role in the conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler, an activity that led to his execution on April 9, 1945. But even in the shadowy work he did as a double agent for the Abwehr, Bonhoeffer never lost sight of the fact that he was an ordained Lutheran pastor. As the founding director of an illegal, underground seminary of the Confessing Church, Bonhoeffer had grown close to the students with whom he shared a unique “life together,” as he titled one of his shorter writings. In August 1937, Heinrich Himmler had issued a decree criminalizing such schools.

Still, Bonhoeffer continued to work with small groups of students that met in isolated, out-of-the-way places such as Sigurdshof in eastern Pomerania. In March 1940, the Gestapo discovered this place too and shut it down. How was “Bruder Bonhoeffer,” as the students called him, to stay in touch with his scattered flock? Beginning in May 1940 and continuing through November 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a series of seven circular letters (Rundbriefe) to his dispersed students. Many of them had by then been drafted and sent to the front lines, and a number of them had fallen in battle. Bonhoeffer corresponded as best he could with his former students at the front. From Ettal, he sent greetings and Christmas presents to their wives and children at home.

The circular letters dealt with issues of pastoral and spiritual concern faced by the former seminarians now far removed from the life they had once shared as a close-knit community of love and learning. How does one maintain a daily order of prayer and Scripture reading, so essential to the Christian life, while carrying out the duties of a soldier? What purpose could God possibly have in permitting the deaths of so many young pastors? How could spiritual equilibrium be maintained in the midst of so much suffering and loss? These and other questions Bonhoeffer answered with compassion, insight, and pastoral sensitivity. The circular letter written from Ettal in December 1940 dealt with how to celebrate Christmas amidst the rubble.

This letter is really a minor theological treatise in which Bonhoeffer makes three basic points. First, he places the current crisis in the wider context of contemporary world history, looking back to the beginning of the Great War as the decisive “turning point” (Zeitwende) that had brought about such a radical change of life. He has in mind the fruits of total war that had numbed European consciousness in the decades following the guns of August 1914: the glorification of death, the degradation of human life, the worship of power, the erasure of morality and meaning in human discourse. These developments had been at work long before 1939, but the current war had made them palpable. “Just as time-lapse photography makes visible, in an ever more compressed and penetrating form, movements that would otherwise not be thus grasped by our vision,” he wrote, “so the war makes manifest in particularly drastic and unshrouded form that which for years has become ever more dreadfully clear to us as the essence of the ‘world.’”

Second, Bonhoeffer argues that an authentic celebration of Christmas is made possible precisely by the underside of human life revealed by the war. Paul Gerhardt was one of Bonhoeffer’s favorite hymn writers, and Bonhoeffer quotes from his Christmas hymn, “O, How Joyful” in order to clarify what genuine Christmas celebration involves:

O (you) joyful, O (you) blessed,
Grace-bringing Christmas time!
The world was lost, Christ is born:
Rejoice, rejoice, O Christendom!

But only in the midst of a world that is lost (“Welt ging verloren”), a world filled with “woe and danger,” can one joyfully sing with Gerhardt, “Christus ist geboren.” What Bonhoeffer opposes is a sentimental view of Christmas in which all is cozy and well loved, sweet and colorful, lovely and harmonious. In this view, Christmas too easily becomes an “escape to some isle of the blessed.” Bonhoeffer, a pastor himself, finds here a special temptation for the shepherds of God’s flock. “How often the parsonage and pastoral life are just such isles of the blessed. And how often we Germans have made of Christmas just such an island onto which one can escape from the actual reality of life for a few days or at least a few hours.”

Bonhoeffer is holding up for review here the kind of Christmas celebration described by Friedrich Schleiermacher in his famous dialogue Christmas Eve (1826). Family and friends gather around the tree in the glow of lamps and candles. Laughter and singing resound. Happy souls converse serenely, exchanging gifts in a scene all suffused with the spirit of a Jesus meek and mild. Such a view of Christmas is not so much heretical as utterly inadequate. “Our escape has backfired,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “The essence of the world has revealed itself. ‘The world was lost’ is no longer a dogmatic proposition; it is manifestly the reality in which our actual life comes to pass.”

Third, at Christmas, Bonhoeffer means to say, God does far more than provide an enhancement of what we possess already. Christmas is not merely a pretty ornament, an add-on to festivities of the season. “It is no longer fine, colorful pictures and images that matter to us; but out of the concrete reality of need, we thirst for the reality of abundant divine help.” The pastor-soldiers to whom Bonhoeffer was writing were like the children of Israel standing at the Red Sea with Pharaoh breathing fire down their necks as the peril of unknown dangers loomed ahead. Dare they go forward, or perhaps reverse course? Precisely in such a moment, in a such a crisis, there is a question to be asked, and an answer to be received:

Whether God truly sent the One who holds the right and power of full, encompassing, conclusive salvation—that is the question we are asking. And the Christmas message is the full, glorious Yes [das volle, herrliche Ja] in answer to this question. To hear this Yes in all simplicity and to speak it in all reality is our task, our blessed task, at Christmastime.

So, we are back with the shepherds in Bethlehem, who saw the Child in the manger and believed what they had heard from the angels. The darkness of the world’s night in our own time is no less dark or forbidding for us than it was for the shepherds then. Christmas does not offer an easy and straight path out of the needs and burdens of our life in the world into a perfect paradise.

We, too, like the shepherds, must again turn back to the old relationships with all their pressures that wound us. Yet if we are given only the shepherds’ Christmas celebration, if we are able only in this way to hear and believe, even so, the Savior is here! God’s hand rests again on the world and will never let it go! Salvation is at hand! The night is far spent; the day is near at hand! The rule of the world has already been denied to the princes of this world and been laid on the shoulders of this child! Then it may be said of us as well as of those shepherds not only that “they returned again” to all the old bitter affliction but also that “they praised and rejoiced in God for all that they had heard and seen, as it had been told to them,” in the midst of all personal anguish, in the midst of the world’s night, in the midst of war …

Timothy George is founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.

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