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December 25, 2018

Article by John Piper

The assumption behind this article is that the preciousness and pleasures of Christmas will be deeper, stronger, and more intense if we experience Christmas as part of something vaster than all creation and endless ages. The wisdom of God that planned for Christmas existed before the universe and embraces all that happens.

The universe is a theater for the display of God’s wisdom. Jesus Christ is the center and sum of that wisdom. It was executed by the Son of God and for the Son of God. Therefore, “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). God’s purpose which guided his plan was “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him” (Ephesians 1:9–10).

This Christ-exalting plan for the universe was eternal — God had it in mind forever. The plan “was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11). It was a “mystery that was kept secret for long ages” (Romans 16:25) — “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). Imbedded in the long-hidden mystery was a promise of eternal life which God “promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2).

Unfolding in God’s Theater

It was a plan that would turn the cosmos into a theater, with angels and devils seated in the heavenly galleries to watch the plan unfold. The plan was to put God’s wisdom on display with Christ at the center. The infinite divine wisdom would be seen in Christ’s great achievement — a bride for the Son of God, snatched from Satan’s hold, redeemed and beautified by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the second person of the Trinity.

At last “the mystery hidden for ages in God would come to light, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:9–10). This is the eternal wisdom of God “which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).

This eternal, divine, cosmically displayed wisdom was summed up in the wonder of the God-man, Jesus Christ. “God’s mystery is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2–3). Thus, in the incarnation, God “made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:9–10).

In other words, Christmas is a central act in a cosmic “plan” (oikonomian, Ephesians 1:10; 3:9) and cosmic “purpose” (prothesin, Ephesians 1:9, 11; 3:11). The plan existed before creation. It was not a response to sin in creation. Creation and redemption were pursued with sin and redemption in full view as part of the plan. Grace was not an afterthought to creation-gone-wrong. God gave us grace “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Second Coming, and Consummation were the eternal purpose and plan of creation, not a response to its fall.

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The artist Ben Wildflower’s depiction of Mary, based on the Magnificat. (Ben Wildflower)

December 20, 2018

When I was 15, I was cajoled into playing the role of Mary in our church’s Christmas nativity scene. I was embarrassed, stuffing a pillow under a robe to signify pregnancy, but I felt I had no choice: I was the pastor’s daughter, and there was no one else who could play the role. My cheeks burning in shame, I remember feeling little connection to Mary, the mother of God. I was silent in the play. Mary, in our tradition, was a vehicle for Jesus: a holy womb, a good and compliant and obedient girl.

Much later in life, I was shocked to discover that Mary wasn’t quiet, nor was she what I would call meek and mild.

Go read the first chapter of Luke. Read the song, called the “Magnificat,” that Mary sings.

The first verses were always familiar to me: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Same for the next few lines about Mary being overwhelmed at the goodness of God looking upon a humble girl, that God is mighty and has done great things, that he is holy and will bless those who fear him. But then comes this:

“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;

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.”

In all my long years of being in church, of knowing the Christmas story backward and forward, I never heard these verses emphasized. Here, Mary comes across less like a scared and obedient 15-year-old and more like a rebel intent on reorienting unjust systems.

I loved this Mary. Where had she been all my life?

Throughout history, I would learn, poor and oppressed people had often identified with this song — the longest set of words spoken by a woman in the New Testament (and a poor, young, unmarried pregnant woman at that!).

Oscar Romero, priest and martyr, drew a comparison between Mary and the poor and powerless people in his own community. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis, called the Magnificat “the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary hymn ever sung.”

Revolutionaries, the poor and the oppressed, all loved Mary and they emphasized her glorious song.

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by

For three months during the early years of World War II, from November 1940 through February 1941, Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945) lived at Ettal, in a historic Benedictine monastery that is still a tourist attraction today. Nestled in the picturesque Bavarian Alps, Ettal became a sanctuary for Bonhoeffer as he found himself zwischen den Zeiten—still officially a pastor of the Confessing Church charged with training ordinands for ministry, yet drawn inexorably into a conspiracy against Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime.

At Ettal, Bonhoeffer experienced firsthand the gracious hospitality of the Benedictine life in which every guest is treated like Christ. He took meals with the brothers in the refectory, he was given access to the monastic library where he worked on his book Ethics, and he walked and skied on the snow-covered hills. In the company of his friend Eberhard Bethge, who came from Berlin for a long visit, he sang and made music. He bought Christmas presents for his family and friends back home, including the wife of Martin Niemöller, a fellow Confessing Church pastor being held in a concentration camp. He spent time with local school children, including his nephew, whom he personally nursed during a bout with influenza. In the midst of all this, he made ready for yet another season of Advent.

Bonhoeffer loved Advent and saw in this holy season of waiting and hope a metaphor for the entire Christian life. During the Advent of 1942, Bonhoeffer wrote a circular letter to some of his friends and former students:

The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye but finds life precisely within it.

Following his arrest, Bonhoeffer would find a good analogy for Advent in the confinement and waiting all prisoners know. Advent reminds us, he wrote, that

Misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something 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 them, this is truly good news.

The monastery was not a prison.

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Michael Gerson

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to re-impose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

For the rest of the post…

Bonhoeffer on Christmas

Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for plotting against Hitler, is in vogue today.  Much of what people are so excited about in his writings is simply Lutheran spirituality.  Michael Gerson writes a fine column about Bonhoeffer’s reflections from a Nazi prison on Christmas.  What Bonhoeffer is saying–the inversions, the paradoxes, the repudiation of power (of great interest in a postmodern apologetic)–is an application to Christmas of Luther’s theology of the Cross.

From Michael Gerson: A God on our side | GazetteXtra:

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence.

“He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. .. He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment.

“No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”

This means, of course, that nearly all of us are judged—convicted by our indifference to the needs of others and sentenced to our own sour, self-flagellating company.

“And then,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love.”

Modern people, surrounded by violence and oppression, presented with morally conflicted choices, are not in need of an ethical system. They are in need of hope. And that sets a limit on our own effort.

“A prison cell like this,” Bonhoeffer wrote, “is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that—ultimately negligible things—the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.”

In the Christian view, the door was swung open by the incarnation, by a God who somehow became a defenseless child, a refugee, a teacher of good, a victim of injustice, left alone, tired, in doubt to face a humiliating death.

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December 27, 2015 in Column, Opinion

Michael Gerson: Bonhoeffer resisted Nazis, offered hope

Michael Gerson The Washington Post

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions …

The current ferment of American politics has brought comparisons to Europe in the 1930s, with echoes of leaders who stoke anger against outsiders and promise a return to greatness through the application of a strong man’s will.

The analogy is hardly exact. Lacking the economic chaos and fragile institutions of Weimar Germany, America has fewer footholds for fascism. But the reaction to fascist darkness in the 1930s produced a figure, a bright light, who should guide us.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who resisted the Nazis and the influence of Nazism in his own church. He spoke out on behalf of German Jews, was implicated in a plot against Adolf Hitler’s life, was imprisoned, wrote and ministered for years from confinement, then was led naked to the execution ground and hung with a noose of piano wire, just weeks before the end of World War II.

As a theologian, Bonhoeffer was farsighted. Modern Western societies, he argued, were becoming “radically religionless.” It is not possible to reimpose this consensus, and mere nostalgia is pointless. But religion – in Bonhoeffer’s view, a changeable form of “human self-expression” – is not the same as faith. “If religion is only the garment of Christianity – and even the garment has looked very different at different times – then what is religionless Christianity?”

It is a question that could occupy a theologian’s entire career. Bonhoeffer’s was cut short at age 39. But it is worth noting one thing he did not find outdated. He believed that Advent and the story of Christmas speak directly to the modern world.

The appeal of Christmas to a prisoner, from one perspective, is natural. Christmas upends the normal calculations of power and influence. “He takes what is little and lowly,” said Bonhoeffer, “and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly. … He loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

This is not merely a sentimental insight. In Bonhoeffer’s view, this revelation about the character of God involves a kind of judgment. “No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.”

For the rest of the post…

Weekly column by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.

Archbishop Chaput: Living the Last Few Days of Advent

As we enter the last few days of Advent before we rightly give our hearts over to the joy of Christmas, we might take a few minutes to consider two brief passages from the past about the deeper meaning of the season.

Here’s the first. The great Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote that

We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love and of God’s coming at Christmas that we no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the [Advent] message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect, that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience.

Only when we have felt the terror of the matter can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us, God cleanses and sanctifies us, comes to us with grace and love. God makes us happy as only children can be happy. God wants to always be with us – in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us.

Bonhoeffer knew both the joy and the cost of his Christian faith, and he lived his discipleship heroically in very difficult times. But he was not alone in his heroism, nor in preaching the real meaning of Advent from the depths of Germany in the Second World War. Here’s a second passage for our December prayers:

We may ask why God has sent us into this time, why he has sent this whirlwind over the earth, why he keeps us in this chaos where all appears hopeless and dark and why there seems to be no end to this in sight. The answer to this question is perhaps that we were living on earth in an utterly false and counterfeit security. And now God strikes the earth till it resounds, now he shakes and shatters; not to pound us with fear, but to teach us one thing – the spirit’s innermost moving and being moved…

The world today needs people who have been shaken by ultimate calamities and emerged from them with the knowledge and awareness that those who look to the Lord will still be preserved by him, even if they are hounded from the earth. The Advent message comes out of an encounter of man with the absolute, the final, the gospel. It is thus the message that shakes – so that in the end, the world shall be shaken.

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Advent & the “War” on Christmas

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I often talk about my struggles with doubt and faith, but in regard to faith, the season of Advent has become even more important to me than it ever was before. In fact, amid all the yearly histrionics and propaganda of the Christian Right and their Fox News Channel cheerleaders who scream about “the war on Christmas” I find Advent to be a powerful antidote.

Advent is the beginning of the liturgical year, in a sense the opening day of a new season of faith, as much as the Opening Day is to baseball. Advent is a season of new beginnings, of hope looking forward and looking back. It is a season of intense realism. It is a season where the people of God look forward to their deliverance even as they remember the time when God entered into humanity.  It was not simply entering the human condition as a divine and powerful being inflicting his will upon people but deciding to become subject to the same conditions know by humanity. As Paul the Apostle, wrote about him: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:5b-8) 

In the incarnation Jesus Christ shows his love and solidarity with people, humanity, the creation, reality. Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote:

“God loves human beings. God loves the world. Not an ideal human, but human beings as they are; not an ideal world, but the real world. What we find repulsive in their opposition to God, what we shrink back from with pain and hostility, namely, real human beings, the real world, this is for God the ground of unfathomable love.” 

That simple fact is why Christ came.

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The year was 1943, and another Advent had dawned for Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer loved Advent and had often preached sermons on this holy season of waiting and hope as a metaphor for the entire Christian life. Just one year earlier, during the Advent of 1942, Bonhoeffer had written a circular letter to some of his friends and former students.

The joy of God goes through the poverty of the manger and the agony of the cross; that is why it is invincible, irrefutable. It does not deny the anguish, when it is there, but finds God in the midst of it, in fact precisely there; it does not deny grave sin but finds forgiveness precisely in this way; it looks death straight in the eye, but it finds life precisely within it.

Those words took on a deeper meaning in December 1943 as Bonhoeffer found himself one of eight hundred prisoners awaiting trial in Berlin’s Tegel military prison.

At this point, Bonhoeffer still hoped he might be released, perhaps even in time to spend Christmas with his family and his nineteen-year-old fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer.

For the rest of the post…

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