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Flunking Sainthood

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Redemption is not a theme we normally associate with Christmas, but with the heaviness of repentance and Lent. The cross is where Christians believe our sins were forgiven, so the Lenten and Easter seasons are the times we reflect on redemption. Christmas is for lightness and gifts and carols.

Not so for Bonhoeffer. In our weekly Advent devotions we’ve seen that week 1 focused on waiting while week 2 dealt with the mystery of the Incarnation. In week 3, the devotional book God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas draws from Bonhoeffer’s theology of redemption. “Jesus enters into the guilt of human beings” at this time, he wrote.

I confess I had not thought of Jesus’ birth in quite that way. In fact, when I was editing this section of the devotional I told a friend I felt like Bonhoeffer kept shouting at me all the time. Repent, repent! he would say. I would cringe. Yet repentance is the first step of the knowledge of redemption, which is what we long for. We are waiting to be rescued.

This year we have seen a number of mine disasters, from the ultimately triumphant eucatastrophe in Chile to last month’s tragedy in New Zealand. Bonhoeffer and his contemporaries were also all too familiar with mine disasters, a knowledge he exploited in this 1933 Advent sermon about redemption:

You know what a mine disaster is. In recent weeks we have had to read about one in the newspapers.

The moment even the most courageous miner has dreaded his whole life long is here. It is no use running into the walls; the silence all around him remains. . . . The way out for him is blocked. He knows the people up there are working feverishly to reach the miners who are buried alive. Perhaps someone will be rescued, but here in the last shaft? An agonizing period of waiting and dying is all that remains.

But suddenly a noise that sounds like tapping and breaking in the rock can be heard. Unexpectedly, voices cry out, “Where are you, help is on the way!” Then the disheartened miner picks himself up, his heart leaps, he shouts, “Here I am, come on through and help me! I’ll hold out until you come! Just come soon!” A final, desperate hammer blow to his ear, now the rescue is near, just one more step and he is free.

We have spoken of Advent itself. That is how it is with the coming of Christ: “Look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” 

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