By Bishop John Tarrant
As Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat imprisoned by the Nazis in Advent of 1943, he recounted a picture painted by the German artist Albrecht Altdorfer, in 1511, of the Holy Family. Many artists have painted a scene of the Nativity, but Altdorfer had captured the prisoner Bonhoeffer’s memory. Altdorfer painted the scene on wood panel. It is different than what we are usually accustomed to seeing.
In Altdorfer’s painting, the sky is dark; full of clouds. The light of the star penetrates the sky casting a glow on the scene. The shepherds are at a distance in the background, easy to miss. The angels have a watchful eye over what appears to be a house or stable in ruins. The broken and crumbled brick walls look like the results of extreme neglect or maybe even war. In either case, it is the type of lodging in which a refugee family might find themselves.
Just off center, in the foreground, you can see that part of this broken building is occupied by cattle. You have to look to notice Mary and Joseph behind a fallen wall. Joseph holds a candle in one hand protecting its flame from the evening breeze with his other hand. Mary is kneeling on the ground, looking adoringly at the child in front of her. All the while the angels look on.
Bonhoeffer reflects that, perhaps Altdorfer meant to tell us “Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too.” He concludes, “that, in any event, is what he does tell us.” and so from his prison cell, away from those he loved, in the midst of a world that seemed to be coming apart at the seams, Dietrich Bonhoeffer would celebrate Christmas. He would celebrate the best that he could, understanding what it was that he was celebrating, and what it was that was important.
Bonhoeffer’s prison cell and Altdorfer’s painting remind us that God has come into the world that is. A world that has mass shootings,wars, house fires, and automobile accidents. A world where cancer still kills and children die of malnutrition and even a world with suicide. This is the world that God has entered, not a cleaned-up, white-washed world that makes for great pictures and pretty songs. God has entered into our world in the person of Jesus, just as it is, to guide and empower us to make it a bit more like the world God created it to be.
At Christmas, we are reminded that God in Christ Jesus came and still comes to our world; the bright-lit homes and the broken homes; the happy hearted, and the lonely hearted; those who have faith and those who still seek. He comes and when we open ourselves to his presence he dwells among us.