Written by: Steinke, Dean Robin Posted on: 05/16/2007
Grace, Mercy and peace to you in the name of the Triune God. This year we celebrate the 100th birthday of Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was born on February 4, 1906. January 27th marked another celebration of a renowned European. This year we celebrate the 250th year of Mozart’s birth. With Bonhoeffer’s love of music, he was a gifted pianist and nearly decided to become a professional musician, I suspected he probably had some things to say about Mozart. On March 9, 1944, from his cell in Tegel prison he wrote to Eberhard Bethge, his dear friend and biographer, and described Mozart, Luther, Karl Barth among others as having a kind of hilaritas, “confidence in their own work, boldness and defiance of the world and of popular opinion, a steadfast certainty in their own work they are showing the world something good.” (LPP, 229)
I have often wondered how was it that Bonhoeffer could speak of hilaritas, this kind of joy in the Lord, when he was marking his second “Passiontide” behind bars; when in the same letter he describes bombings in the city and the sound of air raid sirens blaring.
When others suggest that he is suffering he writes that “This shouldn’t be dramatized. I doubt very much whether I’m suffering today…We so like to stress spiritual suffering; and yet that is just what Christ is supposed to have taken from us, and I can find nothing about it in the New Testament.” (LPP, 232) I wonder if at times we take our own so-called suffering far too seriously. I wonder if we have a propensity to worry over things and events and make far too much of our own struggle. Bonhoeffer concludes this letter to Eberhard Bethge with the comment, “Keep well, enjoy the beautiful country, spread hilaritas around you, and keep it yourself too!” (LPP, 232)
One would expect an attitude of serious anxiety perhaps even depression from a prisoner who was involved in a great struggle over what it meant to confess Christ in the face of a totalitarian regime. No doubt there are glimpses of that in other letters, but in this letter, instead of this image of anxiety and worry, we read about hilaritas. This great reversal of perspective, this turning around of the expected response into something very different is indicative of Bonhoeffer’s capacity to think, to write, to pray, to sing and in many ways bring the church community into his cell and to transcend the immediacy of his desperate circumstances. But this kind of great reversal, this possibility for hilaritas is not simply the product of a powerful intellect, a strong will and a deep faith.
Our Gospel text for today, these few verses from the middle of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount calls for love of enemies and prayers for those who persecute you. Love of neighbor and hate for the enemy sounds familiar, but this great reversal, love the enemy and pray for the persecutor is not something that simply a strong will can enact. No doubt we all know something about love for family, friends, and companions. In reflections on this Matthew text Bonhoeffer points us to a radical, transformative kind of love, far more challenging than familial love.
Bonhoeffer’s wrestling with this text began at an early age, perhaps in response to the death of his older brother Klaus in WWI. At the age of 21 in a paper for a youth group Bonhoeffer wrote, “Are we able to love our enemies? Are we then allowed to engage in war? (Young Bonhoeffer, 524) “The Christian community has means at its disposal with which to overcome evil with good, ranging from patient suffering to ardent persecution.” (Young Bonhoeffer, 539)
He describes something of what it means to love in his doctoral dissertation, Sanctorum
“We know love solely from the love of God that manifests itself in the cross of Christ, in our justification, and in the founding of the church-community.” (SC, 167) Bonhoeffer goes on to describe that Christian love is not a human possibility; it is possible only through faith in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit; it …knows no limits. Love of the enemy is something that can only come about through the power of Christ in Church-Community. We cannot will ourselves to love the unlovable, we cannot will ourselves to a kind of hilaritas or joy in the Lord, only a peculiar act of God in history can make this possible.
Loving the enemy sounds like a nice ideal but hardly seems grounded in the reality of daily life. It seems whenever two people or two institutions or two nation-states meet, which have very different perspectives about strongly held ideas, there is a greater potential for conflict and fragmentation, rather than love, reconciliation, harmony and hilaritas. Here again Bonhoeffer was no stranger to the realities of conflict. He writes in Sanctorum Communio “When one person clashes with another, it might very well lead them to remember the One who is over them both, and in whom both of them are one.” (SC, 192). The one to whom he refers is the Christ in whom our unity comes as gift and as promise and in whom we have the freedom to share our differences.
This recognition of the reality of conflict and the fragmentation of life are present not only in his early work, but re-emerges later in his prison writings.
In a letter to his parents on Feb. 20, 1944 he writes, “…our generation cannot now lay claim to such a life as was possible in yours-a life that can find its full scope in professional and personal activities, and achieve balance and fulfillment…it makes us particularly aware of the fragmentary and incomplete nature of our own. But this very fragmentariness may…point towards a fulfillment beyond the limits of human achievement.” (LPP, 215).
To Dietrich Bethge, his Godson, on the occasion of his baptism in May of 1944 he wrote, “We have learnt by experience that we cannot plan even for the coming day, that what we have built up is being destroyed overnight, and that our life, in contrast to that of our parents, has become formless or even fragmentary…We shall have to keep our lives rather than shape them, to hope rather than plan, to hold out rather than march forward. But we do want to preserve for you, the rising generation, what will make it possible for you to plan, build up, and shape a new and better life.” (LPP, 297)
This recognition of the fragmentariness of life perhaps has resonances with your own stories. Where does this propensity for conflict and the fragmentation of life in response to our utter inability to love as the gospel points, leave us? Can we simply attempt to will ourselves or shame ourselves into a fulfilling call, a meaningful vocation, a kind of hilaritas, that Bonhoeffer so confidently displayed?
Our Gospel text lays before us the call to prayer. Our own inability to fulfill the call of the gospel to love the unlovable, to gather the pieces of our fragmented lives and place them at the foot of the cross, is a call to prayer. Bonheoffer writes in Sanctorum Communio, “In our intercessions we can become Christ to our neighbor...we are not given the cold comfort that others are also in the same situation, but that, if God wants it and we accept it, our debts are cancelled, our sin is forgiven…[In prayer] love again proves to be to work with, for and ultimately in place of our neighbor.” (SC, 187-89)
This call to prayer comes with it the recognition that we will not always know if our course of action is of God or of self-interest.
Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on April 9, 1938 which elucidates what it is we are left with in the face of such a daunting challenge as loving the enemy and dealing with the fragments of life and our call to prayer. “It is on each day in a new struggle through all unbelief, through all little faith, through all vagueness and confusion, through all timorousness and uncertainty to faith that we wrestle…I now have only one God…Christian community is a great gift, which God has given to us…I believe, dear Lord (yes, dear Lord!) help my unbelief…God is our stronghold…God hears our prayer…God has created a sanctuary in the middle of temptation, suffering and struggle. That is the Holy Communion. Here is the forgiveness of sins, here is the overcoming of death, here is victory and peace. God … has acted through Jesus Christ…Come and receive in faith and forgiveness, life and peace. It remains to you the last in the world only these: God’s Word and Sacrament.” (DBW 15, 476-81).
In facing our own inadequacy, finitude, arrogance or complacency, we are called to confess our sins and to confess Christ crucified and risen. “Whether the load is great or small, inferior or high, weak or strong, when he confesses Christ, so he remains victorious in eternity.” (Berlin 1932-1933, 470) Confessing Christ, in all its richness and at times ambiguity, is the Church’s mandate. It shaped Bonhoeffer’s ministry and sustained him through the vicissitudes of life. And perhaps even opened the way for him to receive the great community, the church with him in his prison cell, in prayer, in praise, in thanksgiving , in humility and even hilaritas.
I began with linking Bonhoeffer with Mozart. I want to end with another musical link, the first stanza from the chorale, Before Your Throne, referenced in one of his letters, points to how we must entrust ourselves and our action to God. “Before your throne, O God, I stand, Myself, my all, lie in your hand; Turn not away your gentle face, nor from a sinner keep your grace.” We pause today to remember Bonhoeffer. But if our interest and action stop there, then his witness is diminished. If, however, through his witness we see anew the ways that God is at work in the world; if through his witness we hear anew God’s clarion call to prayer and to action; if through his witness we offer anew the fragments our lives to God’s redeeming work in the world then perhaps we will have begun to glimpse something of the hilaritas, or joy in God that was part of his life and part of God’s intention for each of us. AMEN!
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