In his ‘Editor’s Forward’ to Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s most precious book, Letters and Papers from Prison, Eberhard Bethge recalls how this German Lutheran pastor spent the first eighteen months (from April 5th 1943 until October 8th 1944) of his confinement in the military section of Tegel Prison in Berlin. After not a little quibbling he was given permission to write to his parents. Within six months, Bonhoeffer had ‘made such good friends among the warders and medical orderlies’ that he was also able to start writing to them, ‘partly by letter, partly on scraps of paper’. In one such letter, written in Advent 1943, Bonhoeffer penned to a friend the following words, words which betray not only what was on his mind and in his heart at this time of year, but in doing so also serve as an indictment to so much of what passes for Christianity today, a Christianity for whom the Word which created it – and for which it exists to serve – has become all too foreign.
… For the past week or two these words have been constantly running through my head:
Let pass, dear brother, every pain;
What lacketh you I’ll bring again.
What does ‘bring again’ mean? It means that nothing is lost, everything is taken up again in Christ, though of course it is transfigured in the process, becoming transparent, clear and free from all self-seeking and desire. Christ brings it all again as God intended it to be, without the distortion which results from human sin. The doctrine of the restoration of all things – avnakefalaiw,sij – which is derived from Ephesians 1.10, recapitulatio (Irenaeus), is a magnificent conception, and full of comfort. This is the way in which the words ‘God seeketh again that which is passed away’ are fulfilled. And no one has expressed this more simply than Paul Gerhardt in the words which he puts in the mouth of the Christ-child:
Ich bringe alles wieder.
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (ed. Eberhard Bethge; trans. Reginald H. Fuller; London: SCM, 1954), 87.
(NB. This is a reposting of my contribution to the Advent reflections at Hopeful Imagination)