In the days leading to Christmas in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote to his good friend Eberhard Bethge from prison. He’d been told that on Christmas Eve a “dear old man is coming here at his own suggestion to play some Christmas carols on a cornet.” This, wrote Bonhoeffer, was a bad idea. In his opinion, “In view of all the misery that prevails here, anything like a pretty-pretty, sentimental reminder of Christmas is out of place. A good personal message, a sermon, would be better; without something of the kind, music by itself may be positively dangerous.”1 The thirty-six year old German theologian and pastor worried that holiday festivities would simply demoralize his fellow prisoners as they remembered all they were missing back home. In prison, the days before Christmas required something sturdier than sentiment.
Our Weighty Days
I think our current age calls for something stronger too. A young couple I know, sincere Christians, are planning their married lives together without the possibility of children. They have come to believe so strongly in the dangers of climate change that they cannot, in good conscious, bring children into the world. Another man, at the beginning of his career, told me that he often wonders if he should abandon his academic vocation in order to give himself, somehow, to fighting climate change. Think what you might about these young Christians’ concerns and the decisions that result from them, but their struggles reveal a dire, if not desperate, experience of our world.
We can think of other examples of painfully heavy circumstances that reveal the emptiness of the season’s greetings which are so ubiquitous in our culture. Our nation has slammed its doors on refugees. Immigrant children are separated from their parents. Instances of police brutality and mass shootings fill our social media feeds with numbing and terrible frequency. In Chicago, almost half of our city’s young black men are out of school and out of work. A friend tells me about the high rate of suicide in his rural-community as jobs disappear while addictive drugs become ubiquitous. We could go on.
Are our times any weightier than were Bonhoeffer’s? Than any other time? I doubt it. But in our interconnected, always-on, digitally-networked world, people are much more aware of what is wrong in our world. And when these people—anxious and weighed down—walk into our churches this month, what will they find? Mere sentiment, adorned with brightly decorated trees and choruses of hallelujahs? I have nothing against cookie exchanges and white elephant gift parties, but I believe that these days most people are looking for something stronger.
“When early Christianity spoke of the return of the Lord Jesus,” wrote Bonhoeffer, “they thought of a great day of judgment. Even though this may appear to us to be so unlike Christmas, it is original Christianity and to be taken extremely seriously.”2 Advent, unlike our culture’s Christmas preparations, points beyond our circumstances to our Lord’s return. And this, according to Bonhoeffer, ought to run a shiver down our spines. “The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.” Indeed, Advent has as much to do with the Judge upon the great white throne in Revelation as it does the infant swaddled in a manger. Advent has as much to do with the Judge upon the great white throne in Revelation as it does the infant swaddled in a manger. Click To Tweet
An Invitation to Tremble
And this is the surprising gift of Advent. While our instinct might be to offer comfort and joy to those burdened by the anxious circumstances of our day, Advent asks us first to be afraid. We stand before the birth of the child who would grow into the apocalyptic rabbi, promising lightning-quick judgment and no quarter to the pious. We stand as well before the universe’s king whose return will shock everyone, us preachers included. And this, believe it or not, is exactly what our troubled minds need to remember. Advent invites us to submit all of our fears to that singular fear, the fear of the Lord. Advent invites us to submit all of our fears to that singular fear, the fear of the Lord. Click To Tweet
According to Bonhoeffer, “Only when we have felt the terror of the matter can we recognize the incomparable kindness.”3 Of course, when it comes to Jesus, fear always and quickly gives way to something else. The accused woman is brought to her feet, forgiven. The shivering Peter is commissioned to care for Jesus’ followers. The terrified disciples, huddled in a sinking boat, are provoked to praise the one whose power knows no bounds. The fear of the Lord replaces all of our other fears and opens us to the kindness of that same Lord. Advent calls our anxious and wandering hearts back to Jesus.
The people I talk with, Christians and not, who are keenly aware of our troubled times do not want to retreat from them. In general, they desire their lives to count. They want to give themselves to something bigger than themselves. And yet, unsurprisingly, life takes its toll. Each year, for example, I watch the public-school teachers in our church wrestle with whether they will continue to work amidst incredible inequity and bureaucracy, or if it’s time to find something more stable and less taxing. What, I wonder, can our congregation offer those weary from their good work?
Here too, Advent is an invitation. In these weeks we are reminded that our faith does not insulate us from this world’s grief and injustice. Discipleship to Jesus is not an escape, some spiritualized version of the Christmas fantasies of comfortable security paraded before us this time of year. Instead we gather, more aptly with trembling, before our coming King. And then, inevitably, we are sent by and with him, into the very circumstances that trouble our hearts, yet we are no longer afraid.
It’s not only those such as Bonhoeffer and his fellow prisoners who could not be satisfied by a sentimental Christmas. We too need the bracing promises and invitations of Advent. May the fear of the Lord, and his kindness too, be found in our churches in these days of trouble and longing.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Macmillan, 1968), 97.
 Watch for the Light (Farmington, PA: Plough Publishing Company, 2001), 204.
 Ibid., 205.