Bonhoeffer on Advent

As we begin this new church year, it strikes me that there are a number of ways to “do Advent.” We tend to stick to a handful of narratives to help us prepare, and that’s fine. We focus on preparing to remember and celebrate Christ’s birth among us as the Word made flesh in Bethlehem. We focus on his return in triumph on the last day. The cosmos waited for God’s appearance in Bethlehem. The cosmos continues to wait for the end of the age. It is this waiting that Dietrich Bonhoeffer illustrates beautifully.

A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes — and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.

From a letter, written from prison, dated 21 November 1943.

This picture of Advent could be taken a bit far, in deprecating the First Article gifts of God to His Creation. Yet it does get at the heart of our waiting. We’re stuck. We can’t change our situation any. We must be freed from the outside. Our waiting ends when God again acts–when He returns in His good time according to His plan and His good pleasure. And until then it is our vocation to wait.

That waiting could take a number of shapes. Using the prison motif, we might wait by “numbering the days on the wall.” In this we might despair focused on our present waiting and God’s apparent refusal to come in our time. Or we might wait with the biblical hope that God will make good on His promises and complete our redemption on the last day.

I love Advent 1. I prefer the eschatological Gospel texts to the suggested Triumphal Entry accounts for this day. My contention is that American Christians have forgotten how to wait, and indeed, forgotten that a part of our vocation by faith is to be waiters. It’s wrapped up in our dealings with death and funerals. We have forgotten (or have never learned) to wait, and thus we play metaphysical time games that fast forward our dead brothers and sisters to the Marriage Feast of the Lamb without the bodily resurrection. We functionally ignore any notion of a final resurrection and judgment by relegating most things eschatological to the “we just can’t be certain” file.

We may not be able to say a thing about it from an experiential perspective, but God has revealed a good deal about it in Scripture. We can say more than we tend to say. And we ought to say more than we currently do. The Christian world is action-packed with erroneous eschatology (thank you, Tim LaHaye). Our proclamation ought to include more of what the Word of God says about the Last Things. God’s New Testament people are eschatological people. We’re Advent people. We are waiting for God’s promised redemption (Luke 21.28) to be completed among us. We would do well to consider this age in terms more like Bonhoeffer’s prison cell, with the focus being that we await the certainty of God’s redemption as one who awaits release from his cell.


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