Christmas in Prison

Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer awoke December 25, 1943 on a hard, wooden bed. It was the first of two Christmases he would spend in a Nazi prison. Inside the Tegel prison, Bonhoeffer and his 700 fellow inmates were underfed, verbally harassed and the wardens refused to turn on the lights. All this contributed to the dark and depressive spirit of the place. Bonhoeffer was surrounded by prisoners awaiting execution. He writes about often being kept awake at night by clanking chains of the cots as the unsettled, condemned men tossed and turned.[1]

But it was within this hopeless suffering that Advent and Christmas took a deeper meaning for Bonhoeffer. A prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent, he wrote to a friend. One waits, hopes, does this or that – ultimately negligible things – the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.[2]

In a letter to his parents Karl and Paula Bonhoeffer on December 17, 1943 he asks them not to worry or fret about their separation. He will find joy in their enjoyment of the holiday. He goes on to say,

Viewed from a Christian perspective, Christmas in a prison cell can, of course, hardly be considered particularly problematic. Most likely many of those here in this building will celebrate a more meaningful and authentic Christmas than in places where it is celebrated in name only. That misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt mean something quite different in the eyes of God than according to human judgment; that God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — a prisoner grasps this better than others, and for him this is truly good news. And to the extent he believes it, he knows that he has been placed within the Christian community that goes beyond the scope of all spatial and temporal limits, and the prison walls lose their significance. . . .[3]

These are amazing, yet challenging words for us to hear. It is we who live in places where Christmas is often celebrated in name only and God turns toward the very places from which we turn away. Bonhoeffer goes on to say a prisoner grasps this better than others. Who are these others Bonhoeffer is referring to? Yes, you and me. Why?

For Bonhoeffer, there are two sides to Christmas. There is a hopeless precursor side to Advent. Until God arrives, we have no hope for release from the imprisonment of our sins. Advent reminds us that we are struck and condemned, and, for now, the door to God is locked from outside. We depend completely on someone from the outside to free us. This is our human condition Advent speaks to.

But we don’t see or want to see this is the case. We think we can open the door that frees us from our sins from inside. Therefore, unlike Bonhoeffer and his fellow prisoners, we do not see (or blind to) the misery, sorrow, poverty, loneliness, helplessness, and guilt in our lives. In today’s ‘at your fingertips’ world there is no reason to experience any of these things, at least that’s what we’re told by the gods of technology, self-improvement, money and greed. If we are experiencing misery, sorrow etc., you can dig yourself out of this hole. We don’t need a Savior because the gods of our modern world tell us we can be our own saviors. But that’s not true, for those who have eyes to see. For those who have the light of Christ in them know that we are just as much imprisoned in our souls with loneliness, helplessness and guilt as Bonhoeffer was physically imprisoned.  

Unless we hear and take account this message of Advent, there can be no hope and joy waiting for us on the other side of Christmas. Bonhoeffer could experience hope and joy because the prison walls that physically restricted him lost their significance. Those walls could not stop what the Christ child came to bring to him and his fellow inmates. Clearly, it was not freedom from physical suffering. He was eventually executed along with his fellow inmates. On the Cross Jesus did not escape suffering. Bonhoeffer knew, that because he was united with Christ, he would share in His suffering (Philippians 3.10). So, what was Bonhoeffer’s hope and joy that Christmas day in prison?

Bonhoeffer could celebrate a meaningful and authentic Christmas because, although he knew God was not going to take away his suffering, he knew God was suffering with him. Bonhoeffer was not given relief from his physical suffering, but he had something, no someone much more important – Jesus. Everything that his soul ultimately desired and really needed was found in Him and no one, not even his Nazi captors could take that away from him.

During this season of Advent, you have the opportunity to have what your soul ultimately needs and desires – the child whose birth you will celebrate on Christmas day. Don’t let the immediate satisfaction of your physical needs get in the way of what you need most of all deep in your soul – God’s forgiveness, love, acceptance and presence. The typical, cultural niceties of the Christmas season cannot give you the meaning you need and help you deal with the brokenness of your soul. But Jesus can. And you don’t have to go far to find Him. He’s waiting for you in the place you may last expect – deep in your soul where you experience insecurities, doubt, loneliness, sorrow and guilt. He’s waiting for you there with arms wide open. Take this Advent season to walk into His arms.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 8, Letters and Papers from Prison (Fortress, 2010), 343–347. 

[2] Ibid., 188.

[3] Ibid., 224-226.

Christmas in Prison