Memorial and Place of Encounter Bonhoeffer-Haus Berlin
CANTATE: O sing to the Lord a New Song!
O sing to the Lord a new song. The emphasis is on the word new. What is this new song, if it is not a song that makes someone a new person, when a person leaves darkness and worry and fear behind and breaks forth into new hope, new faith, new confidence? The new song is the one that awakens God’s presence anew in us- even if it is a very old song, of the God who, as Job says, “gives songs in the night.” The song of praise in the night of our lives, of our suffer-ings and our fear, in the night of our death – this is the new song …
O sing to the Lord a new song – and yet all our songs are only a reflection of the song of songs, which sings of eternity before the throne of Jesus Christ …Why should not we, here and now, look forward to that new song that will embrace us when we finally close our eyes, the purest, sweetest, hardest, and most violent of all songs … Lord, we hasten to join in your new song. Jesu juva – help us, Jesus. Amen.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Sermon on Psalm 98:1, London, Cantate Sunday, April 29, 1934, DBW 13, 353 ff..
As part of a series of events organized by the ‘Confessing Church’ on the occasion of the Olympiad in Berlin, Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes »The inner life of the German Evangelical Church« as a story of the Evangelical hymn. In doing so, he contrasts Luther’s songs (“they are without exception songs of the word”) with the songs of Paul Gerhardt:
His personal life was … characterized by great suffering. Bu in this way he became the great preacher of consolation and joy of his era. His hymns no longer testify to the great struggles of faith of early Christendom Luther sang about temptation and struggle; Paul Gerhardt sings, “Be satisfied and remain quiet”; Luther: The righteous one fights by our side”; Paul Gerhardt: “Keeper of my life, truly, it in in vain.” Luther sang: “Grant peace, we pray, in mercy Lord”; Paul Gerhardt: ”Command us your ways.” Luther sang about Christian celebrations with words of Scripture; Paul Gerhardt sang about Christian experience: “Why should I be troubled?” Paul Gerhardt died with one of these stanzas on his lips.
Bonhoeffer then turns his eyes to the song in Pietism with Zinzendorf and Gellert: The pietist seeks a devout life, the enlightener a reasonable life.
Regarding the revival song with Philipp Spitta and Julie Hausmann (“So take my hands”), he notes:
It is an awakened religious life. But it all takes place alongside the church. It is pious poetry but not the preached word. The question is how this nineteenth-century faith will fare when genu-inely serious tribulations come upon the church. The tribulations came, and the response was the Church Struggle.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Presentation on the History of the Protestant Hymn (Student Notes), The Inner Life of the German Evangelical Church, DBW 14, 710 ff.
In his first letter from prison, on April 14th, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes to his parents:
Forgive me for the worries I am causing you, but I believe that this time it is less myself than an adverse fate that is to blame. As an antidote it is good to read and memorize hymns of Paul Gerhardt, as I am currently doing.
In many letters from prison he finds refuge, comfort and clarity with Paul Gerhardt. In the first letter to his friend Eberhard Bethge, which is possible by circumventing censorship, he writes on November 18, 1943:
In the first twelve days here, during which I was kept isolated and treated as a dangerous crim-inal – to this day the cells on either side of mine are occupied almost exclusively by death-row prisoners in chains – Paul Gerhardt proved of value in unimagined ways, as well the Psalms and Revelation.
In his letter to Eberhard Bethge the day after the failed coup of July 20, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoef-fer writes:
I think you must be so often present in spirit with us here that you will be glad for every sign of life, even if our theological thoughts do preoccupy me incessantly, but then there are hours, too, when one is content with the ongoing processes of life and faith without reflecting on them Then the Daily Texts make you happy … And then returning to the beautiful Paul Gerhardt hymns makes one glad to have them in the repertoire. In the last few years I have come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity. The Chris-tian is not a homo religious but simply a human being, in the same way that Jesus was a hu-man being.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, July 21, 1944, DBW 8, 541.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s head and heart, the “theological thoughts” and the “ongoing processes of life and faith without reflecting on them” come together in prison. So singing becomes a ‘new’ song, “that makes someone a new person” in the “profound this-worldliness”. And so the way for his own “new” song paves the way for him.
Paul Gerhardt songs, which are firmly established in the family tradition at festivals and during the church year, become Dietrich’s permanent hold and possession. The appreciation of the controversial orientation towards God’s Word in Luther’s songs is combined with the discovery described by Bonhoeffer in his letter of the 4th of Advent in 1943:
In these past few days I have discovered for myself the hymn »I stand her at your manger«. Up till now I had never really made much of it. Probably one has to be alone a long time and read it meditatively in order to be able to take it in. Every word is extraordinarily replete and radiant It’s just a little monastic- mystical, yet only as much as is warranted, for alongside the “we” there is indeed also an “I and Christ”, and what that means can scarcely be said better than in this hymn.
Bonhoeffer’s consolation poem for Maria and his family: “By Powers of Good” has become a ‘new song’ for many people. It has the power to awaken hope, faith and trust in us today when we leave “darkness and worry and fear behind” us, new.