n 1943, during the days leading up to Christmas Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents from his jail cell. He’d been incarcerated some eight months earlier for taking part in the resistance movement against Nazism, and while he’d had some hope that he would have been released by December, it had become increasingly clear that his future was very uncertain. In that letter, he observed how much he would miss his family over Christmas, and commented how his parents had given to him a good and strong theology of this great Christian feast. Then he continued,
For a Christian there is nothing peculiarly difficult about Christmas in a prison cell. I daresay it will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in places where all that survives of the feast is its name. That misery, suffering, poverty, loneliness, helplessness and guilt look very different to the eyes of God from what they do to man, that God should come down to the very place which men usually abhor, that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn – these are things which a prisoner can understand better than anyone else. For him the Christmas story is glad tidings in a very real sense. And that faith gives him a part in the communion of saints, a fellowship transcending the bounds of time and space and reducing the months of confinement here to insignificance. (Letters and Papers from Prison)
“It will have more meaning and will be observed with greater sincerity here in this prison than in many places where all that survives of the feast is its name.” That is quite an extraordinary claim, really, in how boldly it affirms what is celebrated at this great feast of the Incarnation, and how it implicitly names the hollowness of a merely cultural observance of the holiday. There are moments in this letter home that Bonhoeffer becomes sentimental, but he never lets himself be taken in by sentimentality; by some thin sense of an emotional “happily ever after”.
I’ve been thinking about these distinctions a great deal over the past few days. On Tuesday, I went down to the Northern Hotel, to spend a bit of time visiting with a friend whose wounds and addictions have landed him there as a more or less permanent resident. The Northern Hotel is a battered and worn place, filled with equally battered and worn people whose lives pretty much revolve around the bars and pawn shops that line that few blocks of Main Street. I pulled the car up to the front, and my friend shouted down from a third floor window that he’d be right down. Standing out the street, I noticed that the windows were decorated with bells and bows, and as my friend led me up to his little room, I was bit amazed to see that there were dollar store decorations on the walls and windows, all the way up the stairways and all along the halls. Some of the room doors were hung with battered wreaths and garlands, and as we squeezed past a toothless man on the landing, he wished us both a merry Christmas. And it was Christmas that had brought me down there in the first place.
I first met my friend when I was 18 years old, working in a core area youth program. He was all of 14 years old, and had ended up in our program after getting himself arrested for robbing one of those bike-riding Dickie Dee ice cream boys. The very first day he attended the program, he attached himself to me, and for the next two years I carried out what his probation officer referred to as “Big Mac therapy”. If he attended school every day, I’d take him for a Big Mac and fries, followed by a game of pool or a few rounds of pinball. Even after he’d left the program, we stayed in touch. I helped him and his girlfriend move into their first apartment, I was at the hospital when his first child was born, and I even officiated at their marriage. When that marriage began to collapse, I sat with him in a North End coffee shop and listened as he tried to make sense of all that had gone wrong.
I was also adopted by his family as a kind of household pastor. Over the years, I have officiated at the funerals for his brother (who’d taken his own life in his late teens), his sister (who had died of complications related to HIV/AIDS), and then just this past summer, his mother. After her death, my friend moved into that hotel, where he’s been ever so slowly drinking himself to death.
Over the years, I’d come to expect a phone call from his mother, sometime in the middle of December, asking me if I might be able to put together a bit of a Christmas hamper. She always got the requisite Cheer Board version, but it never seemed quite enough to cover off all the people who would trail through that house around Christmas time. And I always had this feeling that as their Christian friend – as the one person they knew who really seemed to love Jesus – I could be counted on to do this symbolic thing; I would take the time to bring a box of food and to have some tea and a visit.
This is the first year that my friend is facing Christmas without his mother, and this time he made the call. “Hi buddy, do you have a little hamper for me this year?” “Of course I do. What would you like, and when will you be home?”
So I assembled a box, filled mostly with canned food he could prepare in the microwave in his little room. Knowing that his mom had always loved mandarin oranges, I added in a box of those, and then almost as an afterthought I bought a box of chocolates; he’d always loved chocolate. As he unpacked the food, he held up the chocolates, and said, “Trying to make me fat, buddy?” He put them aside, and said, “I think I’ll give these to Keith… is that alright?”
“Sure, you can do whatever you want,” I said, and then I asked “so, who is Keith?”
“He’s the guy who works down at the front. He’s a good guy.” And then there was this little smile – the same smile he’d had when he was 14 – as he added, “Maybe he’ll give me a king can for my present.”
Sure, whatever. That is Christmas on Main Street. Maybe.
You see, the thing about all of those dollar store decorations lining the walls of that tired old place is that while they certainly speak to our cultural sentimentality about Christmas, they also speak to how desperately we all want something bright and beautiful to break through the unrelenting grey; how much we all crave something like the great feast. Yes, there is something really sad about all of those bows and bells hanging on those walls (could Christmas be anything but heart-breaking in that place?), but then this friend of mine takes what is maybe the only gift he’s going to get, and sets it aside for the guy who works the desk.
That same Christmas of 1943, Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to a friend, in which he reflected on some of what he had come to learn during his long months in prison; lessons learned through the helplessness of being at the mercy of his captors. He ended that letter by writing,
From the moment we awake until we fall asleep we must commend other people wholly and unreservedly to God and leave them in his hands, transforming our anxiety for them into prayers on their behalf (p. 62).
As we turn in a few minutes to a time of prayer, will you do that for my friend in his battered hotel room; for the family of Gerald Folkerts, who is spending its first Christmas without him; for those you know who are lonely or sick or struggling with all the things that never quite resolve the way things do in those highly sentimentalized Christmas movies? And as we all keep the feast – and keep the feast we must, as a sign of our proclamation of how the world should be and shall be – may we do that with a deep and profound gratefulness that the hope and joy we experience is grounded ever and always in the one whose birth is celebrated this night, and in whom, in the fullness of time, worlds are reconciled.
Have a blessed Christmas season.
Preached by Jamie Howison at the 2009 Christmas Eve celebrations at saint benedict’s table