(*Reviewer’s Note: I am reviewing a pdf. copy from NetGalley on Kindle which does not include page numbers. I will do my best to indicate from which areas of the book I use citations.)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, minister and theologian living in Germany during the rise of Nazism, was imprisoned for taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler. In 1945, three months before he would be executed, he wrote the poem New Year 1945 about his hope for the coming year, in spite of all of the tragedies that had happened in the world the year before.
When now the silence deepens for our harkening
Grant we may hear Thy children’s voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal pain, in Thy praise.
While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
boldly we’ll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn, God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year’s day
Each year, the church experiences the season of Lent and Easter as hope in the face of tragedy, which makes the writings of Bonhoeffer a perfect accompaniment for our journey towards the cross.
God is on the Cross: Reflections on Lent and Easter(Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) is a devotional text of collected writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer meant to be read daily in preparation for Easter. In fact, it is a specific reworking of selections of text from a devotional collection released previously by Westminster John Knox Press entitled I want to Live These Days with You: A Year of Daily Devotionals. Jana Riess, the editor, wove into the original text Scripture references from the NRSV and what she calls “bonus material” (xi) ,additional selections from other works of Bonhoeffer which tie into the devotional for the day.
A theme is given to each week, week one being prayerful reflection, week two self-denial, week three temptation, week four suffering, week five the cross and finally devotions for Holy Week. To draw the reader towards the “why” of using Bonhoeffer’s works, the editor notes that “These reflections have been chosen especially for Lent and Easter, a time when the liturgical calendar highlights several themes of Bonhoeffer’s beliefs and teachings: that self-deinal is a necessary aspect of a Christian life; that the cross is central to human understanding; and that, without the atonement, every one of us would stand forever in the role of Judas. Overall, the theme of suffering for Christ runs through Bonhoeffer’s work as one of the “costs” of discipleship. (Editor’s Preface)
To help establish the context of the writings, the editor provides a brief biography of Bonhoeffer’s life in the preface. Many of the secondary texts are drawn from letters and works written during his imprisonment and prior to his untimely execution by the Nazi state. An example of this can be found in the bonus material for the first Sunday in Lent, an emotionally moving letter written by his fiancée, Maria Von Wedemeyer regarding the tragedy and hope of his situation, that we can commune with God and one another in spite of physical barriers and like the great paschal story, there is more to life than this present earth. “My dearest Dietrich, every morning at six, when we both fold our hands in prayer, we know that we can have great faith, not only in each other but far, far above and beyond that. And then you can’t be sad anymore either, can you?”
My biggest struggle with the general structure of this book is that the primary devotional texts drawn from the various works of Bonhoeffer aren’t cited. In fact, I had to do some digging through the front of the book to find that these specific texts were already printed in another collection. The editor does not tell even from where in the other devotional these texts are taken; one can only assume that they come from the correlating Lenten and Easter texts. As one who enjoys looking to the original sources, I struggle with the amount of legwork that one would have to do to find from where specific quotations come. Additionally, the bonus material is cited, but it isn’t plain at first whether or not the primary devotional and the bonus material come from the same source: they do not. The Scripture references, though, are clearly sourced.
Structure aside, the selections chosen are mostly very good and appropriate for the selected themes of the week. For the Ash Wednesday devotion under the first week theme, “Prayerful Reflection,” we are given a text from The Cost of Discipleship which sets the tone for the narrative scope of this devotional collection: “Jesus emphasizes that each of us has his or her own cross, ready, appointed, and approximately measured by God.”
From there the editor chooses readings about the power of meditation, the ever-presence of God and enduring hope in our faith. From the devotion for the first Monday in Lent, “A faith that does not hope is sick…We will one day have to be ashamed, not of our hope, but of our miserable and anxious hopelessness that trusts nothing to God, that in false humility does not grasp where God’s promises are given, that is resigned to this life and cannot look forward to God’s eternal power and glory.” The editor then connects this passage with Jeremiah 29:11, “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.”
As with any attempt to connect Scripture with other writings, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. The difficulty of assessing this is that much of its related quality is subjective; to me, the devotion and the Scripture do not seem to connect overly well aside from sharing the word “hope.” However, this may contain a strong connection to other people and serve as a very meaningful pairing.
On the other hand, I believe that the editor made a very strong connection between the secondary devotional material and the Scripture reference for the second Thursday in Lent. The theme for this week’s devotions is “Self-Denial.” In a letter to Eberhard Bethge, Bonhoeffer writes: “You must know that I still have never regretted for a moment my return in 1939, nor anything which then followed. It all happened in full daylight and with good conscience. The fact that I sit here now (in prison) I reckon also as participation in the fate of Germany , to which I committed myself.” Dietrich felt convinced that he could never again serve the German people if he did not suffer with them. The editor connects this act of self-denial to Paul’s description of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-8: “and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death-even death on a cross.” Jesus, through his own actions asserted that the path to ultimate service of others was denial of self. Bonhoeffer’s decision to remain in Germany, then, is an awe inspiring modern day example of fulfilling this form of self-denial. As a reader, I could see this connection and recognize the full scope of Jesus’ calling, that true acts sacrifice and self-denial are much more difficult than giving up chocolate for Lent.
And so through these types of connections and many others in this work, the reader can gain a deeper sense of the terrible journey to the cross, the awe of the resurrection, and the heavy implications of following after Jesus. In this way, the devotional succeeds.
If there are areas in which the reader cannot make such a strong connection, there are many good one-shot devotionals, bonus selections, and Scripture references.
For instance, in the primary devotional text for the third Wednesday of Lent, “In the Wilderness,” Bonhoeffer writes:
“God removes from his son all human and creaturely help. The hour oftemptation is supposed to find Jesus weak, alone, and hungry. God leaves human beings alone in temptation…
What must remain incomprehensible to all human, ethical, and religious thought is that in temptation God does not reveal himself as the one who is gracious and near, who arms us with all gifts of the spirit. Rather, God forsakes us and is quite distant from us. We are in the wilderness.”
Despite the sometimes experienced hopelessness in our own stories, being able to connect with Jesus’ narrative, as Bonhoeffer does here, allows for a mystical, trans-generational commiseration on temptation, that these things we experience are not unique. Jesus, in his journey towards crucifixion, experienced temptation, and because of His sacrifice we can ultimately experience freedom from this “wilderness.”
Reviewing any devotional material can be tricky; I recognize that this is not one cohesive narrative, rather it is a collection of snippets from other narratives, structured together thematically for shor, inspirational reading. The editor set about a noble task in working with Bonhoeffer, though; to provide a deeper alternative to the many Easter devotionals out there that read more like “Christianity Lite” instead of touching on the true darkness of the season. There are certainly flaws in the structuring and some of the pairing, at least from my perspective, but if you are looking for some devotional readings to turn your heart towards the cross that come from one of the premier theologians of this last century, this is more than a good start.