To be certain, his theological writings about such ideas as “religionless Christianity” and “cheap grace” were profound. But it was his private correspondence from prison that actually introduced him to the world some six years after his death on April 9, 1945. For those letters made it plain, as Timothy George has said, that whatever else he might have been—professor, preacher, activist, conspirator and even martyr—Dietrich Bonhoeffer was “first and foremost a pastor.”
His last act before being executed for his role in a plot against Adolph Hitler, for instance, was to lead his fellow prisoners in a worship service. But long before that day, he took delight in being able to share bits of bread or fruit with those around him in that Nazi prison camp, slipping it to them through the wooden slats that divided their cells.
He wrote to his fiancée Maria and reminded her to be brave, that “God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment…whatever men may do to us they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.” He even managed to smuggle out to Maria an Advent poem he had written, concluding with the words, “By powers of good so wondrously protected, we wait with confidence, befall what may. God is with us at night and in the morning and oh, most certainly on each new day.”
In another missive, he told his parents to celebrate Christmas “despite the ruins around us” and to do it “even more intensively,” in fact. For of all the seasons of the Christian year, Bonhoeffer loved Advent the most, believing that only those who know themselves to be poor and imperfect can look forward to something greater to come.
And as that season approached a year before his death, Bonhoeffer penned these words to his best friend Eberhard Bethge that “life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”
I have a feeling that a lot of folks today may understand that sense of waiting for a door to be opened from the outside. For the vaccine to come and be distributed. For the hospital numbers to go back down. For the economy to go back up. In short, for life to find its balance once more. So in that sense, Advent is a good season indeed for all those who are waiting.
Only here’s the thing: if you listen closely enough…you may even be able to hear the doorknob beginning to turn.