The Christmas season is a time when even the Scroogiest curmudgeon can strain out a smile. All of the trees, lights, carols, gifts, and family gatherings birth smiles and laughs that get lost in the hustle and bustle of life. Still yet, for some Christmas is just another reminder of absent joy in the midst of a joyful season. When others are smiling, you are sitting in the ashes of suffering and sorrow. Maybe you or a loved one has been diagnosed with a terminal disease. Maybe you or a loved one is suffering with cancer. Maybe you are single and the holidays are a vibrant picture of the depths of your loneliness. The point is, the expectations of a joyful heart at Christmas are often lacking when satisfaction is sought in the pleasantries of the Christmas season. When joy is sought in the things of Christmas, there is sure to be disappointment, especially when tragedy strikes.
The ultimate question for many this Christmas is not how many gifts to buy or how much food to make, but how genuine joy can be found when all you feel is sorrow.
An answer to this difficult question can be found in the joy that Dietrich Bonhoeffer found in his only Christmas at Tegel Military Prison in Nazi Germany in 1943. Bonhoeffer had been arrested just five days after celebrating his father’s 75th birthday basically because the Gestapo did not like anyone in the Confessing Church or in the Abwehr (Nazi intelligence agency). Bonhoeffer belonged to both. Little did they know, Bonhoeffer was conspiring with others in the Abwehr and Nazi Army to kill Hitler.
On April 5, 1943, Bonhoeffer was arrested at a neighbor’s home and taken to Tegel Military Prison in Berlin. Here is a short excerpt from his early experience in prison:
For the first night I was locked up in an admission cell. The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell, I had to pick it up from the floor…The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the prisoners who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time, since then I have heard it every day from morning till night (Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, 437).
The agony of being unjustly imprisoned and enduring the hardships that comes with being a prisoner of war was enough to make anyone, even the joyful theologian Bonhoeffer dreadfully sorrowful. However, as time went on, Bonhoeffer began to influence everyone at Tegel with the gospel of Christ. Bonhoeffer became known as an incredibly generous, charitable, and cordial prisoner. His natural inclination to pastor never left him and he became a pastor to prisoners during his time at Tegel. He seemed to have an unnatural capacity to rejoice despite not only being imprisoned, but also despite the fact that Hitler was denigrating and destroying the Germany he once loved so dearly. All in the world for a German pastor like Bonhoeffer was bleak, but there was a glimmer of hope shining within him that prisoners and Nazi guards alike noticed.
What was it that caused Bonhoeffer to find joy in the midst of such suffering? A Christmas prayer that he wrote for the entire prison gives us some insight:
Early in the morning do I cry unto thee.
Help me to pray,
And to think only of thee.
I cannot pray alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with thee there is light.
I am lonely, but thou leavest me not.
I am feeble in heart, but thou leavest me not.
I am restless, but with thee there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with thee there is patience;
Thy ways are past understanding, but
Thou knowest the way for me.
For Bonhoeffer, and you and me, true joy is not found in circumstances or celebratory traditions. True joy is found in God, even in the difficult circumstances that he brings. Bonhoeffer found joy at Christmas in prison because he cried to God for help to think only of him! Darkness, loneliness, and weakness filled his heart, so he craved and sought God’s presence. How appropriate was this Christmas prayer. Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Christ. Christmas is the celebration of a King who became a peasant; God who took on flesh to suffer and die in the place of his people.
So, if you are weak and feeble this Christmas, debilitated by disease, separation, loneliness, or despair, seek and find joy in Jesus, the one who perfectly identifies with your suffering and weakness. Christmas joy, like the kind seen in cell 92 at Tegel Prison, Christmas 1943, is found in the fact that God came into a world where Nazi’s rule, cancer kills, and sin destroys to touch us and later die for us to redeem all that is broken. Whatever you are going through this Christmas, know that joy can be found in a King who would lay in a cradle and later hang on a cross.
Mathew Gilbert is a student at Boyce College (B.A. Biblical and Theological Studies). He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba. You can follow him on Twitter @Mat_Gilbert.