I’m letting myself free-fall into Advent this year, thanks largely to Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Year ago, Advent was very meaningful to me, a time of anticipation and waiting. But hey, I’ve been a follower of Jesus for a long time, and even the best practices grow overly-familiar with time; their salt loses its savor. Our kids have been grown and out of the house for 25 years now, so over time all the child-friendly practices fell away. My favorite Advent devotionals are all well-worn. Even the excellently-argued resources that affirm the underlying truths of Christmas while dismissing the historicity of the details no longer stimulate my brain.
None of this has upset me particularly; I have a feeling it’s the normal progression of life in many aspects, including the life of faith. I no longer need the stimulation of the season to increase my commitment and devotion to Jesus. And I still appreciate the rhythms of Advent and Christmas, like one appreciates a well-worn glove.
But yesterday I read an Advent devotional World Vision created for its worldwide staff, and this quote jumped out at me:
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who would soon be martyred, wrote in a letter from Tegel Prison under Nazi occupation about never giving up hope in God’s unbreakable promises:
“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.
This Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer. God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas, P. 2, 13.
I downloaded the Bonhoeffer book and read a few selections this morning. One has stuck to my brain all day and won’t let go. It’s a striking juxtaposition in a letter he wrote from prison to his fiancé Maria von Wedemeyer on December 1, 1943 that spoke perfectly to me in this plague year:
I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.
This pandemic is right in our face, every one of us. Yesterday Janet and I attended (virtually) the memorial service for a 58-year-old friend who died of COVID complications. He was a dear man with a heart of gold, the Benevolence Pastor at a large church.
COVID is cancelling plans, cancelling meetings, cancelling travel… at times we are tempted to feel like it is cancelling Christmas.
And then this thirty-something man, sitting in a Nazi prison cell which would become his eventual death-row home, tells his fiance that they’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. Why? Because the very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making plans for Christmas will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential.
My heart is deeply stirred; I’m feeling a spiritual invitation. No pandemic Grinch can steal our Christmas or Advent, unless we grant it that power. I’m feeling driven back to the basics, back to the quiet, to the waiting, to the pain of Palestine awaiting deliverance from its oppression, to the secret visitations. I want to fall head- and heart-first into this kind of Advent, to lean into what this year is offering us. I’m sensing the gift, the reorientation, the letting go of the trappings we all complain about every previous year–those very things that distract us from the truly essential in this holy season.
We bought a tiny tree last week, and Janet wished we hadn’t hung any ornaments on it. That sounded morose at the time, but now I understand: she wasn’t protesting; she’s leaning into simplicity.
A colleague shared with us this morning: This Christmas Eve, rather than mourning the things that cannot be, we’re inviting our neighbors at 9pm to step out onto our docks, light a candle and together across our tiny lake sing silent night, holy night. Who knows, this might become a new tradition.
What if we could look back on this gawd-awful year and celebrate the precious new and renewed traditions that we began precisely because of it? Because we quit focusing on what is not “normal” and on what we cannot have, and instead leaned into the quiet, the solitude, the noiselessness which is ours in abundance this year.
In all honesty, I don’t think I’ve been this excited about Advent, and what it can mean, for a long time.