Nativity Among the Ruins

Posted on December 23, 2021 by Katherine Ruch

I have been blessed this year by the book, The Mystery of Holy Night, a compilation of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sermons on the Incarnation interspersed with art on the subject.  The opening page quotes a letter he wrote from prison on the first Sunday in Advent, 1943, where he was imprisoned for his stand against the Nazis.  Here is what he wrote to his parents:

I don’t have to tell you how greatly I long for freedom, and for all of you.  But for decades you gave us such incomparably beautiful Christmases that my grateful memory of them is strong enough to outshine even this rather dark one.  It is times like these that show what it really means to have a past and an inner legacy independent of the change of times and conditions. The awareness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that lasts for decades gives one a strong sense of security in the face of all transitory distress…

As we light our Advent candles, prepare gifts for our families and friends, attend services, live in the music of the season, read poetry and stories, decorate our homes, prepare foods worthy of a feast, and gather with those we love, we cannot underestimate the power of the memories being instilled in all of us, especially in children, that we will be able to savor in difficult times.  All of these actions of celebration are worthy of commemorating the Incarnation--the interruption of history with the miracle of God.

Bonhoeffer, however, goes on to say more about Christmases that cannot be celebrated in such festive light:

From the Christian point of view, spending Christmas in a prison doesn’t pose any special problem.  Most likely, a more meaningful and authentic Christmas is celebrated here by many people than in places where only the name of the feast remains.  Misery, pain, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt have an altogether different meaning in God’s eyes than in the judgment of men.  God turns toward the very places from which humans tend to turn away.  Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him at the inn:  A prisoner can understand all this better than other people.  It’s truly good news for him; in believing it, he knows he has been made a part of the Christian community that breaks down all spatial and temporal frontiers, and the walls of prison lose their meaning. 

Christmas, whether celebrated in full style, or remembered from a place of sorrow and constraint, unites us all at the stable.  

I remember years ago when my brother was dying, we had, in my memory, a profoundly difficult Christmas.  I tried to rearrange our small house so that all the relatives that joined us could sit at one big table.  We set up the table in the living room, and it made the space awkward for gathering before and after the meal.  We had moved a comfortable living room chair into the kitchen so that my brother could be part of the preparatory activity.  

I remember the jar that held his special vegetable juice (that he depended on for nutrition) falling out of the fridge and shattering onto the floor-- and the following frustration of losing one person who returned to his house to make more juice, two to clean up the mess, and even fewer to get the feast on the table.  

An aunt and cousin were upstairs desperately trying to finish wrapping presents, and the rush was on because my brother only had the energy for either dessert or presents, which brought about a lot of negotiating dialogue.  Children had expectations.  Parents had expectations.  And we were all painfully aware of wanting to celebrate with my brother for what was most likely his last Christmas.  Somehow, in the middle of it all, one of my sons crouched patiently under the table to insert a whoopie cushion under the seat of a highly proper New England relative.  The ensuing explosive result brought gales of laughter from those of us who have adjusted to an inevitable coarseness living with a houseful of boys, but uncomfortable silence from the southern relatives.  For me, it was a welcome stress valve release created by the new generation being mischievously unaware of the gravity of the day.

A few years later I was flipping through our Christmas Memory book and saw my brother’s handwriting.  Evidently, he had picked up that book on his last Christmas in our flurry of stress and fretting and written: “We came to a delicious late afternoon celebration…In the midst of a daily battle I’m facing with cancer, the Lord made this one of the most special times we’ve ever had. Thank you so much, everyone, for a blessed Christmas Day with all the memories.  With all our love!”

My brother had lived in the real Christmas that day while we were trying so hard to make a Christmas memory.  He was grateful to be alive, aware of Christ in the midst of a failing body. I wish I could have been more able to be present to Jesus that day and the wonder of His coming to us in the midst of sorrow and hurry.  Because of his suffering, my brother had the opportunity to apprehend the true meaning of Christmas. And he welcomed the opportunity.

The painting at the beginning of this post is the one Bonhoeffer reflects on: “The Nativity” by Albrecht Altdorfer (1480-1538).  Against all tradition, Altdorfer painted a Nativity among the ruins.…Christ comes in media res, in the middle of things, right where we are.  The circumstances around Jesus’ birth were chaotic-- a Roman occupation, Mary away from family and all that is familiar, a sense of transience and uncertainty, finding accommodations with relatives she did not know at a vulnerable time.  And right there, among the animals and strangers, in troubled times, the Light of the World, the Savior of the World, labors into the world.

Whether your Christmas will be celebrated this year in the ruins of loss and disappointment or in a glorious festive cozy home, all of us have reasons to be surprised by joy.  Christ came for such a time as this, and he is quite comfortable among the ruins.  It may be that as we draw near to him even in a prison of sorts, like Bonhoeffer or my brother, the circumstances actually make space for the comfort of “God with us,” and the deep consolation of those who fellowship with us.

With God dwells joy, and down from God it comes, seizing mind, soul, and body; and where this joy has grasped a human being, it spreads, it carries away, it bursts through closed doors.”

        -Dietrich Bonhoeffer