Posts about redemptive suffering

Nativity Among the Ruins

Posted on December 23, 2021

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

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Stay With Me: The invitation during Covid-19

Posted on April 09, 2020

I cannot imagine more apropos words during the coronavirus confinement than Jesus’ words: “Stay with me.” We have heard loudly the injunction to “stay at home,” and for many this has led to isolation, loneliness, or confinement with people of whom we can only endure small doses. But Jesus offers companionship, “Stay with ME.”

(Of course his injunction to “Watch and pray,” also has new meaning as we all turn on our devices to watch our holy week services.)

Years ago I remember watching Stewart depart for a Maundy Thursday service he was leading while I stayed behind to care for a sick child. I remember a tremendous disappointment that I was going to miss a service that has meant so much to me, that I had waited for all year. I remember complaining to the Lord, “My desire to go and worship and be with the Church on this night is a good desire. Why did this child who is never sick have to be sick tonight?” I quickly heard in my spirit the whisper of the Lord, “Stay with me.”

This year as we have processed being denied our rich Holy Week through which we are deeply fed, I have wrestled with the sentiment, “maybe we should just skip Holy Week, at least in our expectations.” And yet, Jesus whispers, “Stay with me. Do you want me as much as you want the rich rituals of the worship experience?”

Should I expect that God could meet us in our own homes? It reminds me of Psalm 78, the Psalm we always read on Maundy Thursday, in which the psalmist echoes the Isaelites’ doubt, “Can God spread a table in the wilderness?” Dare we ask of God that we be fed this weekend? He fed the children of Israel with the bread of angels in the wilderness. May we ask for this bread in the wilderness of our own homes?

When Stewart and I visited Jerusalem a couple of summers ago, I laid no expectation on myself for having emotional encounters with the Lord at holy sites. I wanted whatever Jesus wanted to give me. I would not have expected my highlight of the whole trip to be the Garden of Gethsemane. I entered the garden and could imagine Jesus blind with grief touching the craggy and twisted olive trees, now some being over 1,000 years old, moving to a place where he would pass a night of shadowy anguish, haunted by the looming threat of morning and what it would bring.

But it was the Basilica that really took my breath away. The large brass doors with olive trees opened into a space where many domes were covered with painted stars. Every stained glass window was a simple cross, depicting the reality that everywhere Jesus looked he was surrounded by the impending cross. The stone before the altar where Jesus allegedly prayed that night was surrounded with a wrought iron crown of thorns.

And from the crown of thorns emerged at various intervals a cup, the cup of suffering that Jesus had to choose to drink.

Why would Jesus ask me to stay with him here? It is in the garden that he invites us to kneel and begin from where we are but not where we want to end up. It is here we face our fears, our hesitations, our weak wills that shirk from embracing the cross that is ours to take up. It is here that we are honest about everything in us that wars against his kingdom.

This year I know I am bringing into the Garden of Gethsemane my own fears of our global future, my fears of what it will cost me to be a vocal Christian in my own context, the resentments I have nursed instead of embracing forgiveness, my physical pain, and the questions of still unanswered prayers. Here in the garden I want to embrace the kingdom. I want to love Jesus more than all of these other things I carry. I want to say with Paul, “...that I may know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings in order that I may attain to the resurrection of the dead.” (Phil. 3:10-11)

Sometimes the Lord keeps us in the Garden of Gethsemane for a long time. Some of you feel like you live in the Garden of Gethsemane. I have lived through seasons when I start the day begging the Father to let a cup of suffering pass me by and wrestle with him until evening when I can finally say, “Not my will, but yours be done,” just to get up and do it again the next day. But as I surrender my will and stay with the Lord, I find his companionship transformative. I can drink the cup of suffering because it is also the cup of glory to be shared with my suffering and triumphant Lord. For it is only by embracing the cross that I can share in his resurrection power and life.

As I was kneeling and praying at the stone where Jesus prayed, I was moved to tears by the artist’s imaginative rendering of birds perched beside each cup.

These birds were there to comfort Jesus, to be with him in his sorrow. I was touched by that caress of comfort, that small grace in the form of these little birds. The birds stayed with him. To me those birds have been a symbol of the many graces God extends to us in our loneliness and sorrow, a reminder that Jesus has sent us his comfort.

Though we want to run, to act, to do anything to escape suffering, and we are invited to STAY, the invitation does not set aside all action. We are called to watch and pray. Watching implies some sense of expectation that something is coming; something is stirring; he calls us to be aware, alert, to contemplate, take notice so that as we pray we will be guided to know how to pray. And we pray.

I believe the Church is praying more globally than we ever have before. During this Covid-19 crisis in which we are staying in, let us stay with Jesus, let us watch what God is doing, let us pray. Let us be in the Garden of Gethsemane, and simply be with Jesus in the midst of the suffering of the world and pray to embrace the way of the kingdom, which is the way of the cross. Jesus invites you, “Stay with me.”

Practical Ideas for preparing your home as a “garden” where you can stay in with the Lord:

  1. Prepare some space in your home that is a place that is a reminder of God’s presence. The Israelites had the Tabernacle, then the Temple, and within the Temple, the Holy of Holies. In our home, we have a table with a book stand on it, a cross, lanterns and candles that we light at prayer time. On the book stand, we put an icon or an open book with a picture that represents the reminder of the particular holy day. You can put flowers, open Bible, anything else that reminds you of the presence of God in your home.
  2. Consider turning all devices off during the Triduum (the Three Days, beginning the evening of Maundy Thursday and continuing through Easter Day). Only use devices for devotional purposes, ie. services and music. Do not search the web or use any social media. Tell your family and friends to call you if they need something. Because we have been thrust into a world of connection only through devices (and thank God for them during this time!!), we will need to be extremely intentional to make space for watching and praying.
  3. Get into nature and receive the comforts God is offering through his creation. Take prayer walks in the neighborhood. On Palm Sunday we went on a walk around our block singing as a family, and we have had other prayer walks, such that our neighbor got inspired to plan a block wide Easter morning sing from our respective side walks.
  4. Tune into what your church is doing. If you need Holy Week services, consider our church, Church of the Resurrection, which will be live streaming. See the link for services and so many resources for children, prayer walks, and the plan to raise an Hallelujah out of our windows on Easter Sunday at noon. and our diocesan website:

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