Advent in Prison: Rethinking Christmas with Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Since December 1, I’ve been listening to the audio version of God is in the Manger, an Advent devotional comprised of excerpts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer letters and writings from prison.

This is a book I often read through this time of year. Bonhoeffer isn’t Orthodox but his life and death under the Nazi regime are an important witness to Christianity in the modern world. As I wrote last year about his life:

His life remains a stunning example of what it means to be a Christian martyr in modern society. He was a Lutheran minister in WWII Germany, well known for his opposition to the Nazi party and their disregard for human life. He was imprisoned and eventually hanged only a month before Germany surrendered to the Allies (got goosebumps just typing that–the time-eternalness!)

Aside from the martyric backdrop of Bonhoeffer’s life, this particular work offers a helpful corrective to the commercial elements of Christmas that plague our culture. All of the excerpts come from Bonhoeffer’s prison writing; he was afforded few luxuries or warm and fuzzy traditions.

Consider this quotation from early in the devotionals:

I used to be very fond of thinking up and buying presents, but now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us in the birth of Christ will seem all the more glorious; the emptier our hands, the better we understand what Luther meant by his dying words: “We are beggars; it is true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger)

Bonhoeffer recognizes that the absence of the material and commercial accoutrements of Christmas clarifies rather than dampens the message of Christ’s birth. He draws on a famous phrase from his own faith tradition–Luther’s famous observation that we are beggars–to express our utter emptiness and contingency before Christ.

One of the reasons this time of year is so stressful, I think, is that this sense of emptiness and possessing-nothing-ness stands in such tension to the consumerist myth of Christmas. Something in the dark days of Winter, the plaintive carols, the pursuit of imbuing our homes with beauty and greenery–something in all of this signals to us how empty we really are as human beings. And that sense–whether faced consciously or not–unnerves us.

This particularly true when we begin to fall prey to the consumerist Christmas myth that tells us as long as we buy enough stuff, give enough presents, we will be happy. We will be full.

Somehow thinking about Christmas in a prison helps me remember and be more okay with my need for Christ to enter into this world. I start to think of the whole human condition as a kind of prison–one this Christchild in His adulthood would enter and redeem.

As Bonhoeffer also stated:

A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes – and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent



  1. I hate to be a nit-picker here, but Rev. Bonhoeffer did not spell his name “Bonhöffer” – even in German! Both are acceptable variants of the same name in German, and there are certain names – such as Schroeder/Schröder which also do this. This issue is actually brought up in Eric Metaxas’ wonderful book – “Bonhoeffer – Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”, where on page 7, it talks about the entire family dropping the umlaut and using the “oe” spelling somewhere around 1800.

    1. Thanks for being a nitpicker 🙂 It’s appreciated. I’m changing it in the text and will change the graphic when I next have time.

      1. Thank you for your kind response!

        I’m certainly no expert on Bonhoeffer, however, having grown up in a Protestant background (and being of a certain age, I suppose), I had certainly heard of him. I converted to Orthodoxy in my early 20s, but I had heard enough good things about the Eric Metaxas book that I bought it, and was completely enthralled. It’s interesting, though, because my experience has been that within the Orthodox Church there is a contingent who discount any non-Orthodox theologian automatically, assuming that they have nothing worthwhile to say about God or the Christian experience.

        According to Metaxas, if I remember correctly, Bonhoeffer certainly was aware of the Orthodox, but wasn’t terribly impressed by them; then again, it’s hard to say when the only biography of Bonhoeffer that I’ve read seemed to say this, more or less, in passing. (Note, too, that Metaxas grew up Greek Orthodox, became agnostic/atheist, then became Evangelical, so there might be a little bias there as well.)

        However, there were two major questions I think that Metaxas brought up that seemed to frame Bonhoeffer’s work, especially later, and the two questions are certainly related. The first seems to be “What is “The Church”? Of course, for Orthodox Christians, that question is already answered, but Bonhoeffer was not trying to be a schismatic, and sincerely felt that the German “Evangelische” (main Lutheran/Protestant) Church was the true church in that it corrected the “mistakes” of the Roman Catholic Church. However, he was appalled to see how quickly the Nazi government co-opted the main Protestant church in Germany. This isn’t to say that the Nazis were Christian, by any means, but that they kind of co-opted the Protestant Church to make sure that there wasn’t any organized resistance.

        The second, though, which I think led Bonhoeffer to “found” his own “Confessing Church” is that question of when is it right to, based on Christian principles, rebel against a tyrannical government. I’ve heard passages in Romans used over and over again to justify not resisting or speaking out, but if one looks more closely, there are numerous examples in the Bible of this exact scenario – the cases in the book of Daniel probably being the most famous. But Bonhoeffer decided that he couldn’t do this within the “official” German Protestant Church, which is certainly interesting.

        Of course, Rev. Bonhoeffer didn’t survive the Nazis; I think it would have been interesting where his theology would have led if he had. Just my thinking though. He certainly was a brilliant man and incredible thinker.

        (If you’re looking for another interesting story from that place and time, the story of the White Rose is pretty amazing. One of their members – Alexander Schmorell – was glorified as a saint in the Orthodox Church in 2012, and his story has been dear to me for well over a decade. There certainly are HUGE differences between his story and Bonhoeffer’s, but they share in common the question of when faith motivates one to act against a tyranny.)

      2. Now if I could only convince the OCA that St. John of Chicago and Tsarskoye Selo spelled his name “Kochuroff”, not “Kochurov”. I understand that it’s a transliteration of a Russian name, and the “ff” is an older form of transliteration, but the man lived in the United States for over 15 years, and his name was legally “Kochuroff”. He signed legal documents as such, he’s referred to in newspapers throughout the country as such, and his kids who were born in the US have “Kochuroff” on their birth certificates. Then, 50 years after his death, this “Kochurov” spelling starts creeping in! *L* And thanks to the phenomenon of backwards alliteration, while the “v” is more in line with keeping with the Russian letter, the “f” sound is closer to the actual pronunciation. (Think how the word “stopped” sounds like “stopt” – which is how the word was spelled in English for a long time!) The main problem you run into with the transliteration to ff is if you want to maintain the feminine endings for female names – you’d still have Kochurova, because “Kochuroffa” makes no sense whatsoever. Um… yeah… just being a language geek here. 🙂

  2. Thank you for your reflections on one of the great Christian martyrs of the 20th century, Dr. Nicole.

    Your article reminded me what I read from Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)’s works. In his advent reflections, which later was published as a tiny but profound book titled ‘What does it mean to be a Christian.’ He says, to be a Christian is to be a person who lives in Advent: waiting for God in firm faith and assured hope. But still waiting. The light of our faith is surrounded by the darkness of the fallen world. The unity Christ has given us is wounded by our sinful divisions. Yet, ‘we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.’ Hence, we wait in hope singing ‘Marana- tha!’ and ‘Maran- atha!’

    P.S. (I would love to read your reflections on his master piece, Introduction to Christianity. I believe you would appreciate more than anyone else his sensitivity to the concepts of history and time.)

    1. Thanks, Bridgent! Interesting connection with Ratzinger. That is a beautiful thought. I love the idea that Advent provides us with a framework for learning how to wait–and what role waiting plays in shaping our identity as human beings. Our creatureliness means that our existence hovers between the two advents of Christ. Somehow in reactualizing his first advent, during the Nativity Fast, we come to learn how to wait for His second.

      I have not read Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity, although I did read a shorter talk by him about time and Christ (or history?). It was in a collection of talks given in honour of someone else–before he was Pope, I’m sure. I don’t even remember what it was–I had been at the library looking for something else, came across it, and read the talk he’d contributed sort of absentmindedly. Perhaps I’ll check out his Introduction. I like to read broadly, especially when it comes to theology.

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