Sunday, December 16, 2012

79 Years Ago

I recently borrowed from the library a newly published book, The Collected Sermons of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by Isabel Best (she is part of the DBWE team, and herself involved in translations of volumes 8, 12, and 13 of Bonhoeffer's Works). One of the sermons was preached by Bonhoeffer in London on December 17, 1933, exactly 79 years ago. Especially in light of the recent tragedy at Newtown, CT, I thought an excerpt of this sermon would be fitting for this Christmas season.

Bonhoeffer preached on Luke 1:46-55:
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 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, just as he promised our ancestors.”

"My Spirit Rejoices"

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is also the most passionate, the wildest, and one might almost say the most revolutionary Advent hymn that has ever been sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary as we often see her portrayed in paintings. The Mary who is speaking here is passionate, carried away, proud, enthusiastic. There is none of the sweet, wistful, or even playful tone of many of our Christmas carols, but instead a hard, strong, relentless hymn about the toppling of thrones and the humiliation of the lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind. This is the sound of the prophetic women of the Old Testament - Deborah, Judith, Miriam - coming to life in the mouth of Mary. Mary, who was seized by the power of the Holy Spirit, who humbly and obediently lets it be done unto her as the Spirit commands her, who lets the Spirit blow where it wills [John 3:8] - she speaks, by the power of this Spirit, about God's coming into the world, about the Advent of Jesus Christ.

She, of course, knows better than anyone else what it means to wait for Christ's coming. Her waiting is different from that of any other human being. She expects him as his mother. He is closer to her than to anyone else. She knows the secret of his coming, knows about the Spirit, who has a part in it, about the Almighty God, who has performed this miracle. In her own body she is experiencing the wonderful ways of God with humankind: that God does not arrange matters to suit our opinions and views, does not follow the path that humans would like to prescribe. God's path is free and original beyond all our ability to understand or to prove.

There, where our understanding is outraged, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps its distance - that is exactly where God loves to be. There, though it confounds the understanding of sensible people, thought it irritates our nature and our piety, God wills to be, and none of us can forbid it. Only the humble believe and rejoice that God is so gloriously free, performing miracles where humanity despairs and glorifying that which is lowly and of no account. God "has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant." God in the midst of lowliness - that is the revolutionary, passionate word of Advent.

It begins with Mary herself, the carpenter's wife: as we would say, a poor working man's wife, unknown, not highly regarded by others; yet now, just as she is, unremarkable and lowly in the eyes of others, regarded by God and chosen to be mother of the Savior of the world. She was not chosen because of any human merit, not even for being, as she undoubtedly was, deeply devout, nor even for her humility or any other virtue, but entirely and uniquely because it is God's gracious will to love, to choose, to make great what is lowly, unremarkable, considered to be of little value. Mary, the tough, devout, ordinary working man's wife, living in her Old Testament faith and hoping in her Redeemer, becomes the mother of God. Christ, the poor son of a laborer from the East End of London, Christ is laid in a manger...

God is not ashamed of human lowliness but goes right into the middle of it, chooses someone as instrument, and performs the miracles right there where they are least expected. God draws near to the lowly, loving the lost, the unnoticed, the unremarkable, the excluded, the powerless, and the broken. What people say is lost, God says is found; what people say is "condemned," God says is "saved." What people say No! God says Yes! Where people turn their eyes away in indifference or arrogance, God gazes with a love that glows warmer there than anywhere else. Where people say something is despicable, God calls it blessed. When we come to a point in our lives where we are completely ashamed of ourselves and before God; when we believe that God especially now must be ashamed of us, and when we feel as far away from God as ever in all our lives - that is the moment in which God is closer to us than ever, wanting to break into our lives, wanting us to feel the presence of the holy and to grasp the miracle of God's love, God's nearness and grace...

When God chooses Mary as the instrument, when God decides to come in person into this world, in the manger in Bethlehem, this is not an idyllic family occasion but rather the beginning of a complete reversal, a new ordering of all things on this earth. If we want to be part of this event of Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. We ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we will become actors on this stage. For this is a play in which each spectator has a part t o play, and we cannot hold back. What will our role be? Worshipful shepherds bending the knee, or kings bringing gifts? What story is being enacted when Mary becomes the mother of God, when God comes into the world in a lowly manger?

The judgment and redemption of the world - that is what is happening here. For it is the Christ Child in the manger himself who will bring that judgment and redemption. It is he who pushes away the great and mighty of this world, who topples the thrones of the powerful, who humbles the haughty, whose arm exercises power against all who are highly placed and strong, and whose mercy lifts up what was lowly and makes it great and glorious. So we cannot come to this manger in the same was as we would approach this cradle of any other child. Something will happen to each of us who decides to come to Christ's manger. Each of us will have been judged or redeemed before we go away. Each of us will either break down or come to know that God's mercy is turned toward us...

In eight days we will celebrate Christmas, for once really as the festival of Jesus Christ in our world. Before that, there is something we must clear up, something very important in our lives. We need to make clear to ourselves how, from now on, the light of the mangers, we are going to think about what is high and what is low in human life. Not that any of us are powerful persons, even if we would perhaps like to be and don't like to have that said to us. There are never more than a few very powerful people. But there are any more people with small amounts of power, petty power, who put it into play wherever they can and whose one thought is: keep climbing higher! God, however, thinks differently, namely, keep climbing down lower, down among the lowly and the inconspicuous, in self-forgetfulness, in not seeking to be looked at or well regarded or to be the highest. If we go this way, there we will meet God himself. Each of us lives among persons who are the so-called higher-ups and others who are the so-called lowly. Each of us knows someone who is lower in the order of things that we ourselves. Might this Christmas help us learn to see this point in a radically different way, to rethink it entirely, to know that if we want to find the way to God, we have to go, not up tot he heights, but really down tot he depths among the least of all, and that every life only wants to stay up high will come to a fearful end?...

Who among us will celebrate Christmas rightly? Who will finally lay down at the manger all power and honor, all high regard, vanity, arrogance, and self-will? Who will take their place among the lowly and let God alone be high? Who will see the glory of God in the lowliness of the child in the manger? Who will say with Mary: The Lord has looked with favor on my lowliness. My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior. Amen.

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