Bonhoeffer & the Empty-Handed Christmas
At Christmas, we typically think about all the things we’ll get our hands on: wrapping paper, bows, gifts, egg nog, gift cards, etc. In other words, Christmas is a time of accumulation, at least for most 21st century Christians in the West. But in a letter from prison in 1943, Dietrich Bonhoeffer suggests a Christmas with empty hands is all the more powerful:
I think we’re going to have an exceptionally good Christmas. The very fact that every outward circumstance precludes our making provision for it will show whether we can be content with what is truly essential. 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’re beggars; it’s true.” The poorer our quarters, the more clearly we perceive that our hearts should be Christ’s home on earth.
The Christmas story is, at its core, a story of God’s grace – that is, His unmerited favor and goodness to us. Christmas is the ultimate a gift – the gift of God’s very self not only to us but as one of us – a gift for which we did not ask, a gift more grand than we could have imagined. Bonhoeffer discovered, behind bars, that with nothing else to hold onto, the gift was that much more wonderful. “Now that we have nothing to give, the gift God gave us…will seem all the more glorious.” It was Paul Newman who first told us that nothing can be a “cool hand.” Perhaps Bonhoeffer was right that a kenotic Christmas – a self-emptying, like Paul describes in the hymn of Philippians 2 – is more powerful, and true to the gospel narrative, than how we typically experience the holiday.
At Christmas, how can we approach the manger with empty hands? How can we remember, in the midst of so much consumerism and conspicuous consumption, to try to be content with only the essentials? Bonhoeffer, and the church in chains around the world, illustrates the truth of the old preacher’s quip: the one who has God and everything else has no more than the one who has God and nothing.
P.S. I highly recommend this Advent/Christmas devotional built around Bonhoeffer’s writings (pictured above) titled God is in the Manger. The above quotation is dated December 1, 1943 and is found on p. 6.