Christmas Greetings from HeartEdge

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran pastor who directed an underground seminary in Germany, an intentional Christian community that practised a new form of monasticism. Bonhoeffer’s book ‘Life Together’ gives the details for anyone interested in finding out more.

The seminary was closed down in 1937 by the Gestapo and more than two dozen of its students were arrested. Bonhoeffer, too, was arrested in 1943 and executed in 1945, just weeks before the end of World War II. Earlier, while still at liberty, he wrote circular letters to his students encouraging them to pursue and maintain fellowship with one another in any and every way possible; just as we also need to do in the challenges of the pandemic.

In his circular letter sent at Christmas in 1939, he wrote:

‘No priest, no theologian stood at the cradle in Bethlehem. And yet all Christian theology has its origin in the wonder of all wonders, that God became [hu]man … Theologia sacra arises from those on bended knees who do homage to the mystery of the divine child in the stall. Israel had no theology. She did not know God in the flesh. Without the holy night there is no theology. God revealed in the flesh, the God-[hu]man Jesus Christ, is the holy mystery which theology is appointed to guard.’

The Christmas story is one of God sending Jesus to be born as a human being, a person like us, God with us. The incarnation shows us that what is at the heart of the Christian faith is God's commitment to be with us. Being with is the holy mystery which theology is appointed to guard. In ‘A Nazareth Manifesto’, ‘Incarnational Mission’ and ‘Incarnational Ministry’ Sam Wells describes the theology and praxis of being with:

‘Being with involves paying attention to whether the person before us is called, troubled, hurt, afflicted, challenged, dying or lapsed, seeking, of no faith, of another faith, hostile; it is asking ‘what do you seek?’ and ‘what do you bring?’; and focuses on presence, attention, acknowledging mystery, openness to delight, enjoyment, and glory, and working in partnership.’

In thinking about what this looks like in practice, I’ve been drawn to ‘Epiphany’, a hymnlike lockdown song by the American singer-songwriter Taylor Swift which was released in July 2020 on her album Folklore. The song honours those who serve others, such as soldiers and medics, by telling their untold stories of being with others. In the song she imagines a nurse or doctor on a 20 minute break between shifts yearning for an epiphany that will provide relief from the unrelenting agony experienced on each shift.

In ‘Epiphany’ Swift shows us examples of being with others that are Christ-like in their nature. Whether soldier or medic, both sing ‘With you, I serve / With you, I fall down’. That is the essence of incarnate mission, of being with. The epiphany that soldier and medic seek is, on the one hand, ‘Just one single glimpse of relief’ and, on the other, ‘To make some sense of what you've seen’. To see that their being with is an echo of Christ’s being with and an anticipation of heaven, where there is nothing but being with, is an epiphany that truly makes sense of what they have seen.

The first lockdown generated slogans that included ‘Community like never before’ and ‘Let’s make this love normal’. Such sentiments have seemed in shorter supply since. Swift’s ‘Epiphany’ returns us to the place of those slogans and introduces us to the real meaning of epiphany and of Christmas; the incarnate practice of being with.

All of us in the HeartEdge team wish you a very happy Christmas,

Revd Jonathan Evens

Associate Vicar for HeartEdge

St Martin-in-the-Fields