Book Review: “God is in the Manger” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer (2010)

We cannot approach the manger of the Christ Child in the same we approach the cradle of another child. Rather, when we go to His manger, something happens, and we cannot leave it again unless we have been judged or redeemed. Here we must either collapse or know the mercy of God directed toward us. What does that mean? Isn’t all this just a way of speaking? Isn’t it just pastoral exaggeration of a pretty and pious legend? What does it mean that such things are said about the Christ Child? Those who want to take it as a way of speaking will do so, and continue to celebrate Advent and Christmas as before, with pagan indifference. For us, it is not just a way of speaking. For that’s just it. It is God Himself, the Lord and Creator of all things, Who is so small here, Who is hidden here in the corner, Who enters into the plainness of the world, Who meets us in the helplessness and defenselessness of a Child and wants to be with us. (Christmas Day, December 25th, “Living by God’s Mercy”)

Image result for god is in the manger bonhoefferAnother addition to my holiday reading is this Advent-themed devotional by the young theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, some of which was written just weeks before his execution by Nazi hands. The book is designed for daily reading during the Advent season, which can last as long as forty days surrounding Christmas, ending at the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. The format of God is in the Manger is clean and simple, being broken down into four weeks prior to Christmas and then then Twelve Days of Christmas following. Each day contains three distinct portions: a searching passage by Bonhoeffer about that day’s passage and theme, an excerpt that adds to this theme (either from Bonhoeffer’s own writings or from the writings of contemporary theologians I’ve never heard of), and the Scriptural passage of choice in its fuller context.

I must admit that my own fundamentalist background has no relationship with Advent. I understand the theoretical reasons for why some in the fundamentalist tradition refuse to make some days more holy than others, but the idealism to make all days holy rarely works. In fact, this “all days are to be holy” idea simply leaves us with “no days are holy” and the “pagan indifference” Bonhoeffer references on Christmas Day. As the great theologian, Pixar, quips in his volume The Incredibles, “If everyone’s special, then no one is special.” Since Christmas to many Baptists and whatnot becomes simply a single-day holiday where we read a passage or two from the Bible in between opportunities of gorging ourselves on delicious foods, the opportunity to lend the Lord’s birth the awe and reverence it deserves doesn’t sound like such a bad idea.

The more I mature, honestly, the more spiritually immature I feel. In fact, Bonhoeffer acknowledges as much himself on January 3 (“A necessary daily exercise”) when he writes:

Why is it that my thoughts wander so quickly from God’s Word and that in my hour of need, the needed Word is often not there? Do I forget to eat and drink and sleep? Then why do I forget God’s Word? Because I still can’t say what the Psalmist says, “I will delight in your statutes.” (Psalm 119:16) I don’t forget the things in which I take delight. Forgetting or not forgetting is a matter not of the mind, but of the whole person. Of the heart. I never forget what body and soul depend upon. The more I begin to love the commandments of God in creation and Word, the more present they will be for me in every hour. Only love protects against forgetting.

This powerful reminder is the very essence of what the honest child of God seeks in celebrating The Advent or Lent or whatever other process man has created in order to assist in bringing us closer to our God. It’s for this very reason I’d like to shirk fundamentalist arrogance in this case and celebrate these events in my own private time.

Throughout these devotionals, Bonhoeffer seeks to emphasize our humanity, Christ’s deity, and—most importantly for this season—His humanity as well. One particular illustration emphasizes the key perspectives he brings to one’s devotional time, here in the form of a prayer recorded for Week Three, Day Two (“Taking on Guilt”):

Lord Jesus, come Yourself and dwell with us. Be human as we are and overcome what overwhelms us. Come in the midst of my evil. Come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my Brother, Thou Holy God. Be my Brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death.

If during this holiday season or the next you notice your pastor struggling to find some new or profound way to teach about Christmas, consider the fact that he might view Christmas as simply a holiday and something he has to mention, simply because it’s expected. Rather than telling him he needs to celebrate Advent, consider gifting him this book around Thanksgiving time for his own private devotional time. Pray that he’d treat Christmas as more than just “Jesus’ birthday” or as simply a day we set aside each year to remember Christ’s humanity. Pray that he would envelop himself in the power of what occurred when God became Man for us. Likewise, gift this book to yourself for next year. What a fantastic way to appreciate Christmas the way we ought!

©2016 E.T.

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