The year was 1943, and another Advent had dawned for Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer loved Advent and had often preached sermons on this holy season of waiting and hope as a metaphor for the entire Christian life. Just one year earlier, during the Advent of 1942, Bonhoeffer had written a circular letter to some of his friends and former students.”The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.”
Those words took on a deeper meaning in December 1943 as Bonhoeffer found himself one of eight hundred prisoners awaiting trial in Berlin’s Tegel military prison.
At this point, Bonhoeffer still hoped he might be released, perhaps even in time to spend Christmas with his family and his nineteen-year-old fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer. It was not to be. Though he would be shifted to other prisons and concentration camps on the way to his eventual execution at Flossenbürg in April 1945, he would never escape the Nazi grasp. This fact did not diminish but rather deepened Bonhoeffer’s Advent reflections. Eight months after his arrest, Bonhoeffer wrote these words, “By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.” Advent reminds us that
“misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn—a prisoner grasps this better than others. And for them, this is truly good news.”
Tegel prison itself was built in the shape of a cross, and this fact was not lost on Bonhoeffer. More and more he turned toward Luther’s theologia crucis as a way of understanding the connection between Mary’s carrying the Christ child to term in her womb and her waiting with her beloved son beneath the cross. In prison Bonhoeffer was beset by longing, homesickness, and the torment of separation from those he loved so much. “We simply have to wait and wait,” he wrote. “The celebration of Advent is possible only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.”
There was a tender side to Bonhoeffer, but he was no sentimentalist, and he did not romanticize life inside prison. In letters to his family, he put up a brave front so as not to increase their worries about him. But he confided to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, “Despite everything I have written, it is horrible here. The dreadful impressions often pursue me well into the night, and I can cope with them only by reciting countless hymn verses, and then my awakening sometimes begins with a sigh instead of a praise of God.” To Bethge alone, he confessed the shadows and self-doubts later reflected in his prayer-poem, “Who Am I?” “I often wonder who I really am: The one always cringing in disgust, going to pieces at these hideous experiences here, or the one who whips himself into shape?” God does not fill the emptiness, Bonhoeffer said. Rather, God keeps it empty, and in this way he preserves—even in pain—our authentic communion.
Bonhoeffer’s father was a renowned psychiatrist, but Dietrich himself grew weary of psychology and became thoroughly averse to any diagnosis of the soul based on its premises. Instead, he found comfort in the daily reading of the Scriptures, especially the Psalms and other passages from the Old Testament. The Bible he had with him in prison was a gift from his mother Paula. It had once belonged to his older brother Walter, who had fallen in battle during World War I. He also found solace in the hymns of Paul Gerhardt, which he hummed or sang aloud in his cell. Each day at 6:00 in the morning—rather than sleeping in, which he could have done—he arose for Bible reading, prayer, exercise, and a wash with cold water. In thinking about his cold ablutions, he wrote to his parents with wry humor, “Being alone is certainly a steam bath for the soul!”
Bonhoeffer took delight in the simple pleasures and gifts that came his way—a thrush that sang beautifully in the prison yard, a cigar Karl Barth had sent to him, a sweater Maria had knitted for him, a slice of smoked goose from the family holiday meal. Even in confinement, Bonhoeffer was ever the pastor. He cared for and ministered to those around him—his fellow prisoners, guards, officials, and even an ecclesial “enemy” from the German Christian movement who sought him out for pastoral care. As Allied bombs rained down on Berlin, including Tegel prison (which suffered a direct hit), Bonhoeffer became a regular assistant in the infirmary bringing the love of Christ to those afflicted in body and spirit.
Christmas 1943 found Bonhoeffer still alone in his cell separated from the warmth and bonhomie of the family celebration he loved so much. In his cell was an Advent wreath and a picture of the nativity by Fra Filippo Lippi, a visual reminder of the Incarnation. He lit two candles in honor of his parents and Maria; he hummed some tunes from his favorite hymns; he read the Christmas story.
He could have escaped all of this, he knew, had he remained safely in America in the summer of 1939. But he had no regrets. On one occasion he heard someone say that the last several years of his life had been lost for him because of the war. Bonhoeffer, however, found a reason to think otherwise in the biblical text Ecclesiastes 3:15, “Gott sucht wieder auf, was vergangen ist” (in the 1912 version of the Luther Bible Bonhoeffer was using). “God seeks out what has gone by” (NRSV) or “God will call the past to account” (NIV). Bonhoeffer interpreted this to mean that nothing of the past is lost, that God—precisely because he is God—seeks out the past that belongs to us in order to reclaim it. His beloved Gerhardt made a similar point in one of his hymns in which the Lord says: “whatever fails you/I will restore it all.” “So what does that mean, ‘I will restore it all’?” Bonhoeffer asked. And then answered: “Nothing is lost; in Christ all things are taken up, preserved….Christ brings all of this back indeed, as God intended.”
By Advent 1944, Bonhoeffer had been transferred to the infamous Gestapo prison on Prinz-Albrecht-Straße. There, the conditions were harsher and his ability to communicate with the outside world more restricted. But in a letter Bonhoeffer was able to smuggle out to Maria von Wedemeyer, he expressed the faith that had sustained him during his long ordeal and that would see him through to the very end. Dietrich’s words to Maria continue to inspire courage and hope in our own dark times. In the form of the hymn, Von guten Mächten (“By Gracious Powers,” tr. Fred Pratt Green), they are still sung by Christians in Germany and around the world today.
By gracious pow’rs so wonderfully sheltered,
and confidently waiting come what may,
we know that God is with us night and morning,
and never fails to greet us each new day.
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
with bitter suffering, hard to understand,
we take it thankfully and without trembling
out of so good and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again in this same world you give us
the joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
we shall remember all the days we lived through
and our whole life shall then be yours alone.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.