I’m having a Grinch moment, and it is a bit disconcerting. Change that: it is very disconcerting. Here are the lines that tell the whole Grinch story (and yes, Dr. Seuss was a genius): 

“Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Was singing –Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow,
stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so?
It came without ribbons. It came without tags.
It came without packages, boxes or bags.
And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store.
What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”

Let’s say it together: “We LOVE this story!” From the very first page of the book, we all knew that the Grinch had Christmas wrong, but now he sees the error of his ways and is on the verge of a grand Dr. Seuss-style repentance (if only new birth could be so easily begat in that well-known rat, the cat in the hat!). And we are so happy. And the reason we are so happy is because we know our view of Christmas is right (“Silly Grinch, of course, it doesn’t come from a store!”). And we love seeing people forsake their wrong-headed opinions and join us on our side (after all, our side is also the right and righteous side). But what if we also have Christmas mostly wrong? What if we have more in common with the Grinch than we care to admit. 

What if WE have Christmas all muddled,
A little confused and a little befuddled?
And what if we think we are right, and right all along,
When really, in fact, we’ve had it all wrong?
Would we rise to the occasion and repent like the Grinch
Or we stay where we are and not give one little inch?

I warned you; I am having a Grinch moment, and it is making me rethink how I should perceive Christmas. I should have listened to Helen Exley, who famously said:

“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labeled, ‘this could change your life.’”

My dangerous book this week is a harmless-looking Christmas devotional book entitled, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. The contents of the book were written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but Jana Riess created the book, compiling material from Bonhoeffer’s letters, sermons and notes and editing them together to produce this Christmas book (Bonhoeffer’s words were translated by OC Dean, Jr.; the book was published by Westminster-John Knox Press in 2010). But here’s the thing and the point of this blog: Bonhoeffer’s perspective on Christmas and my perspective are worlds apart, and the difference is rather disconcerting (hence, the Grinch analogy). 

For the next several weeks, I would like to work our way through God in the Manger. The book is divided into five sections (waiting, mystery, redemption, incarnation and Epiphany). For the next five weeks, I would like to share a few Bonhoeffer quotes that struck me from each section, identify Bonhoeffer’s big point and then make a few quick comments about the topic at hand. Our first topic is “waiting.”

Bonhoeffer Quotes:

  • “Jesus stands at the door knocking. In total reality, he comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for your help. He confronts you in every person you meet. This is the great seriousness and great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us. Do you want to close the door or open it?”
  • “The Advent season is a season of waiting, but our whole life is an Advent season, that is, a season of waiting for the last Advent, for the time when there will be a new heaven and a new earth.”
  • Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent.” 
  • Just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all of our ideas are wrong and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives.”
  • “The coming of God is truly not only a joyous message, but is, first, frightful news for anyone who has a conscience. 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.”
  • “Thus Advent can only be celebrated by those whose souls give them no peace, who know that they are poor and incomplete, and who sense something of the greatness that is supposed to come, before which they can only bow in humble timidity, waiting until he inclines himself toward us – the Holy God himself.” 

Bonhoeffer’s Main Idea: Waiting is a painful art that requires struggle, but ends in joy. Advent is, thus, a time of struggle and hardship and doubt, a time that will not be resolved completely until the last Advent, but a time, nevertheless, of faith, of hope and of humble, but desperate need (he quotes Luther’s last words, “We’re beggars, it’s true.”). 

Reflection: What is clear from the devotions in this first section, is that Bonhoeffer and I view things very differentl

  • For me, Christmas is a time of anticipation and joy; for Bonhoeffer, Advent is a time of waiting in deprivation and seriousness (“the austere blessedness of waiting”).
  • For me, Christmas is a time of answers (“Christ has come!”); for Bonhoeffer, Advent is a time of struggle with the way things are. 
  • For me, Christmas pushes my doubts and difficulties into the background; for Bonhoeffer, Advent brings his anguish, fears and sufferings to the forefront.
  • For me, Christmas focuses on my family and those close to me; for Bonhoeffer, Advent focuses on Christ coming to us in the disguise of those around us who are in need. 
  • For me, Christmas is a time of noisy celebration; for Bonhoeffer, Advent calls us to be silent before God.
  • For me, Christmas is fun; for Bonhoeffer, Advent is a mixture of joy with some very serious reflection.
  • For me, Christmas is waiting for the day (Christmas day); for Bonhoeffer it is waiting for that Day (the coming of God’s kingdom where all things will be put to rights).

The quotes, Bonhoeffer’s view that Advent is a time of faithful struggle with the way things are, the stark contrasts between my (our?) view and Bonhoeffer’s, are more than enough to make us rethink how we think about Christmas. It is a disconcerting perspective, but how we think about Advent tells the whole story.