When the old Christendom spoke of the coming again of the Lord Jesus, it always thought first of all of a great day of judgment. And as un-Christmas-like as this idea may appear to us, it comes from early Christianity and must be taken with utter seriousness … . The coming of God is truly not only a joyous message, but is, first, frightful news for anyone who has a conscience. And only when we have felt the frightfulness of the matter can we know the incomparable favor. God comes in the midst of evil, in the midst of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And in judging it, he loves us, he purifies us, he sanctifies us, he comes to us with his grace and love. He makes us happy as only children can be happy.
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In the midst of the deepest guilt and distress of the people, a voice speaks that is soft and mysterious but full of the blessed certainty of salvation through the birth of a divine child (Isa. 9:6-7). It is still seven hundred years until the time of fulfillment, but the prophet is so deeply immersed in God's thought and counsel that he speaks of the future as if he saw it already, and he speaks of the salvific hour as if he already stood in adoration before the manger of Jesus. "For a child has been born for us." What will happen
one day is already real and certain in God's eyes, and it will be not only for the salvation of future generations but already for the prophet who sees it coming and for his generation, indeed, for all generations on earth. "For a child has been born for us." No human spirit can talk like this on its own. How are we who do not know what will happen next year supposed to understand that someone can look forward many centuries? And the times then were no more transparent than they are today. Only the Spirit of God, who encompasses the beginning and end of the world, can in such a way reveal to a chosen person the mystery of the future, so that he must prophesy for strengthening believers and warning unbelievers. This individual voice ultimately enters into the nocturnal adoration of the shepherds (Luke 2:15-20) and into the full jubilation of the Christ-believing community: "For a child has been born for us, a son given to us."
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For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.
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No priest, no theologian stood at the manger of Bethlehem. And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders: that God became human. Holy theology arises from knees bent before the mystery of the divine child in the stable.
Without the holy night, there is no theology. "God is revealed in flesh," the God-human Jesus Christ—that is the holy mystery that theology came into being to protect and preserve. How we fail to understand when we think that the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason! Its sole office is to preserve the miracle as miracle, to comprehend, defend, and glorify God's mystery precisely as mystery. This and nothing else, therefore, is what the early church meant when, with never flagging zeal, it dealt with the mystery of the Trinity and the person of Jesus Christ … . If Christmas time cannot ignite within us again something like a love for holy theology, so that we—captured and compelled by the wonder of the manger of the Son of God—must reverently reflect on the mysteries of God, then it must be that the glow of the divine mysteries has also been extinguished in our heart and has died out.
Excerpted with permission from God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
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Read Christian History magazine's 1991 issue on Bonhoeffer.
Other articles on Bonhoeffer from Christianity Today include:
The Authentic Bonhoeffer | Eric Metaxas explains how the German theologian lived a life worth examining. (July 1, 2010)
Bonhoeffer Stood Fast | Martyred German pastor showed theology has consequences. (May 4, 2010)
Bonhoeffer | Producer and director Martin Doblmeier has translated Bonhoeffer's extraordinary life into an informative and compelling documentary. (April 20, 2004)
CT Classic: Bonhoeffer in Love | Letters from 1943 to 1945 between the theologian and his fiancée reveal the other half of a costly discipleship. (February 1, 2001)