Dietrich Bonhoeffer awoke December 25, 1943 on a hard wooden bed. It was the first of two Christmases he would spend sequestered in a Nazi prison.
This first Christmas would be celebrated in a lonely prison cell in a place called Tegel. He had been there for nine months, and he would be there for nine more until he was transferred to his final home, a Nazi concentration camp.
Bonhoeffer had hoped to be released for the holiday, but that was contingent on his personal lawyer who proved unreliable. His hope of spending Christmas with his family quickly evaporated into the cold silence, and his only connection with his parents would come through letters.
In the Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer and his 700 fellow inmates were treated as criminals irrespective of trials and verdicts. The men were underfed and verbally harassed, and frequently the warden refused to turn the lights on, adding to the dark and depressive spirit of the place. Bonhoeffer was assigned to a cell surrounded by prisoners awaiting execution. He writes about often being kept awake at night by the clanking chains of the cots as the unsettled, condemned men tossed and turned.1
But it was within this suffocating suffering that Christmas seemed to take a deeper meaning for the 37-year-old pastor-scholar. “A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent,” he wrote to a friend. "One waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside."2
Two Sides to Christmas
For Bonhoeffer, there are two sides to Christmas. There is a hopeless precursor side to Advent. Until God arrives, we have no hope for release from this imprisonment of our own sin. We are stuck and condemned, and the door is locked from the outside. We depend completely on Someone from the outside to free us.
And yet on the other side of Christmas, on the other side of the birth of Christ the King, we find suffering remains. We find freedom and hope, but the suffering is not washed away. As Martin Luther says, “God can be found only in suffering and the cross.”3 It is in the suffering of the Son of God that we find God.
From his birth in a despised manger, to his death on the cross, the Son of God suffered. Christ was acquainted with pain (Isaiah 53:3). And because Christ was familiar with it, we too are made familiar with suffering (2 Corinthians 1:5, 1 Peter 4:13).
The wisdom of God in the suffering of his Son baffles us. Christ became weak and vulnerable in order to suffer for us in his full payment of our sin (Philippians 3:9). What this means is that the child of God suffers, but not because God has withdrawn from him, but because God has drawn close. We are united to Christ and we share in his sufferings (Philippians 3:10).
A Christmas More Meaningful and Authentic
Which brings me to Bonheoffer’s Christmas letter from the Tegel prison to his parents Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer on December 17, 1943. In it he asks that they not worry or fret about their separation. He will find joy in their enjoyment of the holiday. They will feast together, and he will feast on the memories of precious Christmases past.
At one point, Bonhoeffer writes this:
Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas in a prison cell can, of course, hardly be considered particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in this building will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where it is celebrated in name only.
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 him this is truly good news.
And to the extent he believes it, he knows that he has been placed within the Christian community that goes beyond the scope of all spatial and temporal limits, and the prison walls lose their significance. . . .
With great gratitude and love,
Suffering Brings Meaning to Christmas
Ironically, we can miss this meaning of Christmas if our celebration is only wrapped up in comfortable warm fires and the fellowship of friends and family. We can miss the memory of our desperation that required the Son of God to suffer for us. We can miss the personal desperation met in the manger. And we can miss out on the fellowship of his sufferings.
As we have recently explored, Christmas and suffering are deeply interwoven themes in Scripture. Personal suffering brings deeper meaning to Christmas. And in a season of suffering, the child of God discovers that he suffers not because God has drawn away, but because God has drawn close to us convicts, drawn close through a manger, drawn closer to us than the hard prison cell walls of a cold Nazi prison.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress, 2010), 343–347.
2 Ibid., 188.
3 Luther's Works (Fortress, 1957), 31:53.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress, 2010), 224–226.