Archive for December, 2016


One of my favorite Bonhoeffer photos was taken at Christmastime in 1940 at the Ettal Monastery, which Bonhoeffer visited from time to time and where he wrote the bulk of his book Ethics. Bonhoeffer was a gifted pianist, though at one time by his family to have a future as a concert pianist. His close friend Eberhard Bethge was quite proficient on the flute and introduced Bonhoeffer to what became some of the latter’s favorite music.

Between the two men are three children of Bonhoeffer’s sister, Christine von Dohnanyi. One of the children, Christoph, became Music Director and Conductor of the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra.

Music-making was always part of the life of the Bonhoeffer family. They sang hymns and even whole cantatas as part of family life. Schubert, Brahms, Beethoven: All had a place in the family musical evenings. Several siblings played instruments. Dietrich even did some composing. His maternal grandmother had studied piano with Clara Schumann and Franz Liszt and passed along her love of music to her daughter Paula, who made sure all the Bonhoeffer children were bathed in good music during all their childhood.

Christmas, of course, was a highlight of the musical year for the Bonhoeffer’s. The hymns of Advent and Christmas were all sung every year. Yes, there were a few gifts exchanged but it was music which bound the family together in the spirit of Christmas. Good music, rich music, music of Bach and Handel and several German composers of Christmas hymns.

For us, Christmas has become a time of tension and rush, a time of anxiety about how much we’re spending on gifts and anticipation about what we’re going to receive. No wonder our spirits so often feel impoverished during this, our most exciting — but shallow — season.

Music and meditation on Scripture take time and discipline but pay dividends too rich to describe. Christmas, the birth of hope, deserves no less.



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One of the inescapable lessons Bonhoeffer and his friends had learned since the beginning of the Nazi reign was that they were in far less control of their own lives than they had thought in their younger years. What once seemed a basic right, that of planning one’s own life, was now seen as a pipedream.¬† They could do little to determine what each day would bring or what they might be doing tomorrow.

Such loss of freedom could be accepted as mere fate or, as Bonhoeffer is encouraging, it can be freely chosen and affirmed as an expression of faith. The former leaves one inclined to ignore personal responsibility — a fundamental sin in Bonhoeffer’s view — while the latter means one continues to respond to (be responsible to) God.

When we live by faith, we live as if each day were our last and simultaneously as if our tomorrow is gloriously beautiful. Bonhoeffer remembers that Jeremiah spoke of great destruction for Jerusalem, even while telling the exiled Israelites in Babylon to settle down and make good lives for themselves.

It may be, of course, that it is not we who will get to enjoy the wonderful tomorrow, at least not on this earth, but the next generation. Bonhoeffer might well have had Abraham in mind at this point. He was promised the land, though his clan did not in fact  possess it for more than four centuries. Nonetheless, god the the surety of tomorrow, whenever it may come.

Realizing that, we do not lose heart at the troubles the present day may bring. We wait patiently and responsibly through them, knowing that Jesus Christ has gone ahead to prepare a place for us. Thank you, Lord!.

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