“We can, and should also, celebrate Christmas despite the ruins around us….I think of you as you now sit together with the children and with all the Advent decorations—as in earlier years you did with us. We must do all this, even more intensively because we do not know how much longer we have.” Letter from Dietrich Bonhoffer to his parents, November 29, 1943, written from Tegel prison camp.
Waiting can be hard
When we wait it means what we hope for has not yet come. It has been promised, or we have reason to believe it is on its way, but it is not yet here. We anticipate it and we actively look for it, but we wait.
In November of 1943, German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer found himself in prison without any knowledge of when or if he might be released. With war raging around him there was no telling whether he might ever see his family again. He would have to wait to see if the circumstances of the war turned in his favor, but in the meantime, he had something greater to hold onto. Despite his imprisonment, he believed there was good reason to celebrate Christmas, decorations and all.
At Advent we wait and hope. In fact, Advent teaches us how to do that as we celebrate the first coming of Jesus Christ born in a manger. Bonhoeffer wrote about the value of celebrating Christmas even while he was in prison with very little earthly hope. He helps us see how our immediate circumstances do not dictate whether we have good reason to wait for and hope for the next coming of Jesus Christ.
Another character who helps us with this is Simeon, the man who waited most of his life for the coming of the Messiah.
Soon after the birth of Jesus His parents took Him to be presented at the Temple, and there the family met Simeon. What little we know about him makes Simeon that much more incredible. Luke says he was, “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25). Simeon was probably near the end of his natural life. Being described as “righteous and devout” means he did everything he could to obey the Law of God and keep his heart pure. And God had given him a promise. Luke says the Holy Spirit told him he would not see death until he had seen the Christ come.
The coming of the Lord’s Messiah meant, in Luke’s words, the “consolation of Israel” (vs. 25), which means the “calling near” of the people of God. This moment means that God is drawing near to His people to be their salvation—a need felt deeply during the Roman occupation.
There is a lot riding on this moment of promise. The people of God need saving, Simeon is getting closer to death, and now a young couple with their child enters the Temple.
Part of the power of Advent is the inevitable difference between what we expect to see when God arrives as compared to how God actually shows up. Did Simeon expect a child from a poor family? Did he expect an earthly king? We don’t know. But his faithful reaction to the child Jesus, gives us wisdom about how to wait and hope for the coming of our Lord.
God was the source of his hope
It was natural for many in Simeon’s day to hope for their political freedom from Roman oppression. In fact, Zealots gathered militias to cause trouble, and many looked for an earthly savior.
When Simeon saw a child from a family with no political power, he could have dismissed them. But, attentive to the Holy Spirit (v. 27), Simeon saw the child and knew immediately He was the One. Simeon’s hope was not in political or military freedom, but in God. The promise and character of God, not a set of earthly circumstances, was the foundation of his hope.
And so it was with Bonhoeffer while in prison. He didn’t wait for his release before he talked about celebrating Christmas, and he didn’t ask his family to wait for him to come home. The only way for us to have genuine hope while tossed by earthly circumstances, is to put it in something utterly out of the reach of our surroundings. At Advent we learn our hope belongs in the promise and character of God. He sent his Son. He is sending His Son again.
Simeon sees the salvation of the Lord
What Simeon saw with his earthly eyes was a baby boy and poor family. With his eyes fixed on God’s promise, what he saw was theirs, and our, salvation. He sings, “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation” (Luke 2:29-30).
Before all the prophesies are fulfilled, before the Romans are overthrown, before any questions are answered, Simeon rejoices in the salvation of his God. God has come! He may have come in a form that most will not see, and some will despise, but He has come. Simeon is ready to depart in peace because he has waited in faith and in the promise of his God.
What do we see? Is our vision filled with all that is wrong and broken around us? Do we, without even thinking about it, put all the hope we have in the righting of those wrongs?
What if our hope is higher than any headline? What if we have a hope we can cling to even while the nations rage?