Memorial and Place of Encounter Bonhoeffer-Haus Berlin
“Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead”
(1. Peter 1:3)
What do we know from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s last sermon, on Sunday Quasimodogeniti, April 8, 1945 in Schönberg?
CONTEXT & TEXT
On February 7, 1945, unlike his superiors Lieutenant-General Canaris and Brigadier Oster, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was not transferred from the Gestapo prison in the Reich Security Main Office in Berlin directly to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, but was brought to the Buchenwald concentration camp. So he got on the hostage deportation of the SS, with which he was transported – past Flossenbürg – to Schönberg in Upper Bavaria. There, the almost 100 political and military prisoners (“special prisoners”) from 17 countries together with 45 “clan prisoners” from families of assassins of July 20, 1944 were housed and guarded in schools.
Eberhard Bethge reports in his Bonhoeffer biography from 1967 under the heading “The End” that Bonhoeffer was asked by fellow inmates to hold a morning prayer on “White Sunday”. He only agreed when the atheistic Russian fellow prisoner Kokorin also accepted the request. “He read the Quasimodogeniti texts on Sunday, said prayers and interpreted the watchwords of the day to his comrades: »We are healed through his wounds« (Isaiah 53: 5) and »Praise be to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! By his great mercy God has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead« (1. Peter 1:3.). He spoke of the thoughts and decisions that captivity had matured in all.”
We do not know more than the Moravian daily watchwords on Quasimodogenity and this one sentence about Bonhoeffer’s interpretation. What do these two Bible words mean to him for the understanding of the Christian faith, the 4th song of the Suffering Servant with the vicarious representative action and the word about the new life in faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ?
Isaiah 53 plays a role in the relationship between Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Eberhard Bethge. After more than half a year in the detention prison of the army in Tegel, Bonhoeffer had managed to win the trust of a guard who would could smuggle his letters past the censorship.
From mid-November 1943, Bonhoeffer was able to reconnect to his friend Eberhard Bethge in this way. On December 15, 1943, he wrote:
“For I was so utterly accustomed to sharing everything with you that such a sudden and long interruption represented a profound readjustment and a great deprivation. Now we are at least back in conversation, and I am reading your good, warmhearted letter, so familiar to me in its language, over and over again. Ever since your sermon on Isa 53, I have been very fond or your language.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 16, 486, Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2006).
Bethge had given a trial sermon to Isaiah 53 in the 1st Finkenwalder course. Bonhoeffer had also submitted a sermon outline on this and stated:
“Here the Old Testament at its limits. Glimmers of the New Testament visible … About the vicarious representative action of a nameless one … Faith see that he is the one who is struck down for us, our punishment, in the place where we ought to suffer. Stands where I and humanity ought to stand … Who is the Unnamed? Answer is given. Answer is there: in the New Covenant, in Christ as the Crucified, as the anticipated messiah. For whom Israel waits.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 14, 359 ff., Fortress Press, Minneapolis 2013).
Is Christ’s vicarious representative suffering one of the “thoughts and decisions that captivity” had “matured” in? And is this thought suitable to also make sense of the experiences in detention? Possibly also with non-religious people?
In a letter to Eberhard Bethge of July 21, 1944, immediately after the coup of July 20 failed, Bonhoeffer writes about his knowledge
“… that one only learns to have faith by living in the full this-worldliness of life. If one has completely renounced making something of oneself … then one throws oneself completely into the arms of God, and this is what I call this-worldliness: living fully in the midst of life’s tasks, questions, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities – then one takes seriously no longer one’s own sufferings but rather the suffering of God in the world. Then one stays awake with Christ in Gethsemane. And I think this is faith; this is Metanoia. And this is how one becomes a human being, a Christian … I am grateful that I have been allowed this insight, and I know that it is only on the path that I have finally taken that I was able to learn this. So I am thinking gratefully and with peace of mind about past as well as present things.” (DBW, vol. 8, 218)
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “learning to believe” does not mean – as in the focus of traditional dogmatics – a new birth and sanctification, but throwing oneself in the open arms of God and the other becoming a Christian – this ethical idea has “matured” in his imprisonment.
Under the impression of the threat of the inconspicuous virus, the fearful look at the other, which could become a potential threat for me, captures our thoughts and decisions. Liberation presupposes that we ask: What does the other person need in these critical times? And how can I – responsibly – meet him in a creative way? How does our life depend? What is coming to an end with this crisis and what can start again for me and for the others?
We can learn so much strength to resist / resilience from Bonhoeffer’s thoughts and decisions in prison – even if his and our threat situation are as far apart as death and life. Our life is only limited, his life is threatened with death.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer is picked up after the prayer in Schönberg to be taken to the Flossenbürg concentration camp, his last words are a message to his ecumenical friend Bishop George Bell: “Tell him that this is the end for me, but also the beginning . “ (DBW 16, 468).
Christ, true man and God,
who comes into our life
make us willing to your love
then God’s time is all the time.