December 2014 / January 2015 - Vol. 77

 Adoration of the
                  Shepherds painting by El Greco
God in the Manger at Bethlehem
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945)

My Soul Praises the Lord
Sermon given on the
Third Sunday in Advent -
December 17, 1933
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down the rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, even as he said to our fathers.”
Luke 1:46–55
This song of Mary’s is the oldest Advent hymn. It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men. These are the tones of the prophetic women of the Old Testament: Deborah, Judith, Miriam, coming alive in the mouth of Mary.

Mary, filled with the Spirit and prepared. Mary, the obedient handmaid, humbly accepting what is to happen to her, what the Spirit asks of her, to do with her as the Spirit will, speaks now by the Spirit of the coming of God into the world, of the Advent of Jesus Christ. She knows better than anyone what it means to wait for Christ. He is nearer to her than to anyone else. She awaits him as his mother. She knows about the mystery of his coming, of the Spirit who came to her, of the Almighty God who works his wonders. She experiences in her own body that God does wonderful things with the children of men, that his ways are not our ways, that he cannot be predicted by men, or circumscribed by their reasons and ideas, but that his way is beyond all understanding or explanations, both free and of his own will.

Where our reason is offended, where our nature rebels, where our piety creeps anxiously away, there, precisely there, God loves to be. There, he confuses the understanding of the clever. There he offends our nature, our piety. There he will dwell and no one can deny him. And now, only the humble can believe him, and rejoice that God is so free and so wonderful, that he works miracles when the children of men despair. He has made the lowly and humble to be lifted up. That is the wonder of wonders, that God loves the lowly: “God has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

God in the “humble state” that is the revolutionary, the passionate word of Advent. First, Mary herself, the wife of a carpenter. We may say, the poor working man’s wife, unnoticed by men but now, insignificant and in her humble state as we might see it, she is significant to God and appointed to be the mother of the Savior of the world. Not because of some remarkable human trait in her, not because of some great piety, not because of her modesty, not because of any particular virtue in her, but apart from any of these characteristics, only because God’s gracious will is to love the humble and lowly, the insignificant. He chose to make them great.

Mary, living in the faith of the Old Testament and hoping for her redeemer, this humble working man’s wife becomes the mother of God. Christ the son of a poor working man’s wife in the East End of London! Christ in the manger...

God is not ashamed to be with those of humble state. He goes into the midst of it all, chooses one person to be his instrument, and does his miracle there, where one least expects it. He loves the lost, the forgotten, the insignificant, the outcasts, the weak, and the broken. Where men say, “lost,” he says “found;” where men say, “condemned,” he says “redeemed;” where men say “no,” he says “yes.” Where men look with indifference or superiority, he looks with burning love, such as nowhere else is to be found. Where men say, “contemptible!,” God cries, “blessed.”

When we reach a point in our lives at which we are not only ashamed of ourselves, but believe God is ashamed of us too, when we feel so far from God, more than we have ever felt in our lives, then and precisely then, God is nearer to us than he has ever been. It is then that he breaks into our lives. It is then that he lets us know that that feeling of despair is taken away from us, so that we may grasp the wonder of his love, his nearness to us, and his grace.

“From now on all generations will call me blessed,” says Mary. What does that mean? Mary, a maid of “humble state,” called “blessed?” It can be no other than the miracle of God that he has astonishingly performed on her; God has been “mindful of the humble state” of Mary and raised her up; God, coming into the world, seeks out, not the high and mighty, but the lowly; that we might see the glory and the mighty power of God making the down and out great.

To call Mary “blessed” does not mean to build her an altar; but with her to pray to God, who is mindful of the lowly and chooses them, who has done great things holy is his name. To call Mary blessed is to know with her that God’s “mercy extends to those who fear him,” those who watch and consider his astonishing ways, who let his Spirit blow where it will, those who are obedient to him and with Mary, humbly say, “May it be to me as you have said.”

When God chose Mary for his instrument, when God himself in the manger at Bethlehem decided to come into this world, that was no romantic family portrait, but the beginning of a total turning point, a new ordering of all things on this earth.

If we want to participate in this Advent and Christmas happening, we cannot simply be like spectators at a theater performance, enjoying all the familiar scenes, but we must ourselves become part of this activity, which is taking place in this “changing of all things.” We must have our part in this drama. The spectator becomes an actor in the play. We cannot withdraw ourselves from it.

What part then do we play? Pious shepherds who bow the knee? Kings, who bring their gifts? What play then is being performed when Mary becomes the mother of God? When God comes in the lowly state of a child in the manger? It is the judgment of the world and the salvation of the world that is being acted out here. And it is the Christ child in the manger, who judges and saves the world. He turns back the great and the powerful. He has brought down the thrones of the rulers. He has humbled the proud. He has used his power against the high and mighty, and has raised up the lowly and made them great and glorious in his compassion. And therefore we cannot approach this manger as we approach the cradle of any other child. But who would go to this manger goes where something will happen. When he leaves the manger, he leaves either condemned or delivered. Here, he will be broken in pieces or know the compassion of God coming to him.

What does that mean? Isn’t it all rhetoric, pastoral exaggeration, a beautiful, pious legend? What does it mean that such things are spoken of the Christ child? If you take this as mere rhetoric, then you will celebrate Advent and Christmas in the pagan way that you always have. But to us, this is no mere rhetoric. For what is true is that God himself, the Lord and Creator of all things, here becomes little and helpless, here in a corner, in seclusion, unnoticed, he enters the world. Helpless and powerless as a baby, he meets us and wants to be with us. This is not trifling or playing games, but real! The Christ child indicates to us where he is and who he is and from this place judges all human pretensions to greatness, dethroning the rulers and devaluing the proud.

The throne of God in the world is not as human thrones, but is in the depths of the human soul, in the manger. Around his throne, there are not flattering courtiers, but obscure, unknown, unrecognizable forms, who cannot see enough of this wonder and gladly live from God’s mercy alone.

There are only two places where the powerful and great in this world lose their courage, tremble in the depth of their souls, and become truly afraid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No man of violence dares to approach the manger, even King Herod did not risk that. For it is here that thrones tumble, the mighty fall, and the high and mighty ones are put down, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich are nobodies, because God is with the poor and the hungry. “He fills the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Before the Virgin Mary, before the manger of Christ, before God in his lowly state, the rich have no rights and no hope. They are convicted. The proud man may think that nothing will happen to him today, yet tomorrow or the day after, it will happen. God brings down tyrants from their thrones. God lifts up the humble. For this purpose, Jesus Christ as the child in the manger, as the son of Mary, has come into the world.

In eight days, we shall celebrate Christmas and now for once let us make it really a festival of Christ in our world. Then we must prepare ourselves by getting rid of something which plays a great role in our lives. We must be clear about how, in the face of the manger, we shall think about what is high and what is low in human life in the future. Of course, we are not all powerful, even if we wish we were and we reluctantly admit it. Only a few are really powerful. But there are many more with little power, who when they can, exert what power they have, and live with one thought: that they might have greater power!

God’s thoughts are the opposite. He desires to be even lower, in humble state, unnoticed, in self-forgetfulness, in insignificance, in worthlessness, not wishing to be high. And it is on this road that we meet with God himself. Everyone of us lives side by side with some whom we call great, and some whom we call low. Every one of us has someone who is below us. Is it possible that this Christmas we could rethink this radical point, learning and knowing that our way, insofar as it is the way to God, leads us not to the high and mighty, but really into the depths, to the humble and poor? And that every way of life, which is only a way up higher must end in disaster?

God is not mocked. It is not a light thing to God that every year we celebrate Christmas and do not take it seriously. His word holds and is certain. When he comes in his glory and power into the world in the manger, he will put down the mighty from their seats, unless ultimately, ultimately they repent. It is a very important matter for a congregation that they understand this point and that they see the consequences for their life together. There is much to think about here about the direction this congregation is taking.

Who of us would want to celebrate Christmas correctly? Who will finally lay at the manger all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all pride, and all selfishness? Who is content to be lowly and to let God alone be high? Who sees the glory of God in the humble state of the child in the manger? Who says with Mary: “The Lord has been mindful of my humble state. My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior?” Amen.

Excerpt from I Stand at the Door and Knock: Advent and Christmas Sermons by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited and translated from German into English by Edwin Robertson, copyright © 2005, published in the UK 

Bonhoeffer at Tegel PrisonDietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) was a German Lutheran pastor and a founding member of the Confessing Church. He was the first of the German theologians to speak out clearly against the persecution of the Jews and the evils of the Nazi ideology. In spring of 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing Church in Germany to take charge of an “illegal,” underground seminary at Finkenwalde, Germany (now Poland). He served as pastor, administrator, and teacher there until the seminary was closed down by Hitler's Gestapo in September,1937.

In the seminary at Finkenwalde Bonhoeffer taught the importance of shared life together as disciples of Christ. He was convinced that the renewal of the church would depend upon recovering the biblical understanding of the communal practices of Christian obedience and shared life. This is where true formation of discipleship could best flourish and mature.

Bonhoeffer’s teaching led to the formation of a community house for the seminarians to help them enter into and learn the practical disciplines of the Christian faith in community. In 1937 Bonhoeffer completed two books, Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. They were first published in German in 1939. Both books encompass Bonhoeffer’s theological understanding of what it means to live as a Christian community in the Body of Christ.

He was arrested and imprisoned by the Gestapo in April 1943. On April 8, 1945 he was hanged as a traitor in the Flossenburg concentration camp. As he left his cell on his way to execution he said to his companion, "This is the end – but for me, the beginning of life."

photo of Bonhoeffer in the courtyard of Tegel prison, summer 1944; source: Christian Kaiser Verlag

Adoration of the Shepherds, painting by El Greco - 1603-05

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