Maundy Thursday for the Church whether or not Christians are able to gather – is also the seventy-fifth anniversary of the death of martyred theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Imprisoned in 1943 for participating in the resistance to the Nazi regime, he finally was hung by a decree of Hitler which also resulted in almost five thousand other deaths. That April morning in 1945 was eight days after Easter. Bonhoeffer’s last remembered act was to gather prisoners and any guards who wished around Word and prayer, people isolated from family and friends, from their congregations and the world around them. Within weeks, the Thousand Year Reich would be in ashes and rubble, and because of it, millions of people dead, displaced, homeless, stunned witnesses to the loss of everything they held dear.
Stay-at-home ordinances, curfews, and keeping a public, six-foot distance all smack of imprisonment to minds and hearts formed by slogans such as “the Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.” When heard by folks whose anxious pieties assert, “Aren’t we supposed to just have faith?”, and “Let’s stay happy in the Lord!”, we think we can flaunt the daunting reality not only in other countries, but now in local Lutheran congregations [not to mention other faith communities!] whose members have been exposed, or in some cases, have tested positive. One could mutter, “How soon we forget!”, but the wisdom gleaned from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic has dissipated with the passing of a generation.
Bonhoeffer remains an eloquent witness for us in this time of fear and uncertainty. The letters he was able to send to family and friends reveal an isolated individual nevertheless secure in faith yet soberly aware of the reality he had been dealt. He had learned much about living the Christian life in all its aspects. The Christian life was and remains a journey to the cross into Easter. What Bonhoeffer discovered in his final months, cut off from all around him, is humbling to us grousing about our present reality. In one of his last letters to his fiancée he wrote,
These will be quiet days in our homes. But I have the experience over and over again that the quieter it is around me, the clearer do I feel the connection to you. It is as though in solitude the soul develops senses which we hardly know in everyday life…
Our present house arrest gives us the opportunity to be quieter, to be shed of the busyness in which we oddly take pride, even the busyness of “doing church.” Like Bonhoeffer, we have the chance to remember in thanksgiving the things that connect us and strengthen relationships, the acts of kindness for those we love, and the gracious regard others have for us. Bonhoeffer mentions in particular, “your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books—all are invested with life and reality as never before.”
Bonhoeffer provides as blessing to friends these words of counsel, as pertinent now for us as for his friends who would soon mourn his tragic death:
The world lives by the blessing of God and of the righteous and thus has a future. Blessing means laying one’s hands on something and saying, Despite everything, you belong to God. This is what we do with the world that inflicts such suffering on us. We do not abandon it; we do not repudiate, despise or condemn it. Instead we call it back to God, we give it hope, we lay our hand on it and say: May God’s blessing come upon you, may God renew you; be blessed, world created by God, you who belong to your Creator and Redeemer.