I wanted to pause our series on American Church History in order to post a blog about Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Christmas. Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) wrote several books which are widely regarded by Christians even today, but his Letters and Papers from Prison have a much different tone than some of his other, more theological and ethical texts. In Letters and Papers, obviously, one gets a picture of how Bonhoeffer experienced prison and isolation from his family during World War II. There are many selections which describe his experience in prison while the city in which he is incarcerated is bombed. It paints a sobering picture, since not only is he bound to a cell, but the prison building itself is subjected to artillery shells striking the area around it.
Several of his letters actually address spending Christmas in jail, which is the focus of this blog today. Bonhoeffer writes in a letter to his parents, “The only thing I can do to help is to believe and know that your thoughts about it will be the same as mine, and that we shall be at one in our attitude towards the keeping of this Christmas. Indeed, it can’t be otherwise, for that attitude is simply a spiritual inheritance from you. I needn’t tell you how I long to be released to see you all again” (Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 165). He mentions that this Christmas (with him in prison) will be a somber one, but it should not dampen the holiday for everyone simply because he is incarcerated. It sounds easy enough, but I am sure that his family (which they actually illustrate in a letter that they wrote to him) missed him in the house during their regular traditions.
If nothing else, I think Bonhoeffer here shows how difficult it is for families at the holidays to be separated from loved ones because of prison, wars, or other circumstances. The sacrifices of people like Bonhoeffer’s family, as well as their torment around the holidays, make his Letters and Papers relatable to audiences today.
Another passage I want to discuss comes from the same letter. Bonhoeffer writes, “From the Christian point of view there is no special problem about Christmas in a prison cell. For many people in this building it will probably be a more sincere and genuine occasion than in places where nothing but the name is kept. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God… that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn-these are things that a prisoner can understand better than other people” (Bonhoeffer, 166).
This passage strikes me because I’ve never considered how the Christmas story can resonate with individuals who have no home, family, or safe haven to go to at Christmas time. Not just for prisoners, but for the homeless and the lonely people in the world, the Christmas story has a special message for all of them: Christ entered this world in a similar circumstance. Joseph and Mary were travelling and trying to find a space for Jesus to be born. The only space left was in a stable area. The humility of Christ’s birth speaks to those whose existence can only be described as “humble.”
Bonhoeffer, as a prisoner, knew isolation and loneliness at Christmas. He though, unlike so many, had a loving family who came to see him when they were permitted and who missed him at Christmastime in their home. How many of his fellow prisoners felt a much deeper loneliness and isolation than he did because they had no such support? How many prisoners incarcerated today feel a similar loneliness and isolation, especially at the holidays?
I want to draw this blog to a close by examining one final passage from Bonhoeffer’s letter to his parents. He writes, “It’s only when one thinks of the terrible times that so many people in Berlin have been through lately that one realizes how much we have to be thankful for. No doubt it will be a very quiet Christmas everywhere, and the children will remember it for a long time to come. But it may perhaps bring home to some people for the first time what Christmas really is” (Bonhoeffer, 166).
He touches on a powerful notion that speaks also to today’s world. There is the obvious connection that Christmas has become too commercialized in the United States, and that a “quiet” Christmas is the remedy, but I think there’s more to it than that.
The idea that it might only be when things are “quiet” during tragic times that one experiences what Christmas really is about has a powerful impact to those who are suffering this holiday season. Illness, enmity, strife, fear, and loss can lead to a painful Christmas season. However, it might be that those who are dealing with such heartache will have an experience of Christmas and Christ’s love that they need in such a dark hour. That is not to say that people should see their struggles as a good thing (no one wants to hear that), but that Christmas specifically might shed a small light into their dark world. After all, isn’t that what Christmas is all about anyways? Christ came as a light into a dark world. The good news of Christmas can be just the right thing for those seemingly surrounded by bad news.