As Advent takes a sharp turn toward Christmas, Edna Hong’s gentle yet powerful, Bright Valley of Love, comes to mind. Set in post-World War I Germany, it is the story of Gunther, a boy whose body was twisted and whose mind was strangled already in the womb. Forsaken by his mother and left to live his earliest years hidden away in a back room of his grandmother’s house, Gunther is finally brought to Bethel, a Lutheran place of mercy where he is no longer seen as a shameful piece of human junk, but a beloved child of the King of Heaven. At Bethel, his ears are filled with the stories of Jesus and the hymns of the Church surround his feeble existence. Bethel was the house of God and as such it was also home to those who the world considered worthless: those seized with epilepsy, the crippled, the blind, and the mentally disabled. Here they were cared for by deaconesses with hearts and hands of mercy. Pastor Fritz (in real life Pastor Friedrich von Bodelschwingh the younger who stood in staunch opposition to National Socialism and with other men like Hermann Sasse, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Georg Merz, and Wilhlem Vischer was instrumental in producing the Bethel Confession of 1933) is the director of Bethel who shepherds his congregation of misfits to the crib of the One born to be their Savior.
Before coming to Bethel, Gunther did not know of Christmas. In that life, one day was no different from the next as each was dark and dirty. But now at Bethel, life for the whole community moved with the ever-changing rhythms of the Church year. The season of Advent was permeated with Gerhardt’s, “O shall I receive Thee, How greet Thee Lord, aright?” Weissel’s, “Lift up your heads, ye mighty gates! Behold the King of glory waits,” and Luther’s, “Ah, dearest Jesus, Holy Child, Make thee a bed, soft undefiled, within my heart, that it may be a quiet chamber kept for thee.” Devotions around the Advent wreath and the Christmas crèche, brought a new and undimmed world to the horizon of Bethel and its residents. The voice of praise was not silent here as the anticipation of the coming Savior brought light and love to the village. The promises of Advent were in the air.
All this was new to Gunther. So new and strange as to be contradicted by all he experienced in his short life up to this point. In the glow of Advent candles and joyous songs exhorting mighty gates to fling open wide, little Gunther throws up his complaint: “There’s a crack in everything!” Indeed, “For Gunther the joyous expectation of Christmas feeling was practically rubbed out by the other, the fear feeling. His complaint turned into a cry for help: ‘What’s so great about Christmas?” (59).
That is the question which the preacher must answer! Pastor Fritz enlists the other children to help him tell Gunther what is so great about Christmas. The answers are jumbled and not always coherent as the children reply with fragments of a hymn like, “to ransom captive Israel,” or truisms like, “Christmas is the 25th day of December,” or, “Christ is born in Bethlehem.” Finally, one little girl, Leni, triumphantly repeats Gunther’s initial complaint: “Because everything has a crack!”
Drawing close to Gunther’s side, Pastor Fritz now answers the question: “It is true, Gunther, there is a crack in everything. God sees the crack better than we do, and the crack is ever so much worse than we think it is. Therefore, God sent His Son from the heavenly home to our earthly home. Not to patch up the crack, but to make everything new. That is why Christmas is so great Gunther” (61).
At Bethlehem, God did not inaugurate a repair job, plastering over the fissures of this broken world, working with the art of an embalmer to paint over the face of death with the cosmetic appearance of life. The Christmas Gospel first preached by the angels is the announcement of the birth of a Savior who will bring Heaven’s peace to earth. From all eternity, the Father willed to send His Son, the eternal Word, into the flesh to tabernacle among those like Gunther who the world deemed unworthy of life. He was born not to reform the world but to redeem it by His blood. No longer veiled in poverty and shame, but forever clothed in our flesh, He now declares, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). He came not to merely deal with the symptoms of sin, but once and for all to break the grip of sin and defeat death. He comes to us at Christmas, Helmut Thielicke says, “…in the depths. I do not need first to have religious feelings, out of which I then produce some internal and external results, before He comes to me. He comes in the stable, to the disconsolate, the sick, and the despairing; He trudges in the lone line of refugees; and if everyone and everything should desert me in my final hour, I can say, “If I should have to depart, depart not from me.’ Then He comes even to the dark valley of death. Crib and cross are of the same wood.” This is, finally, why Christmas is so great!
Oswald Bayer writes we live in a world where, “mercy is not self-evident.” That was certainly the case in the years leading up to World War II in Germany. It is no less true for us in 21st century North America. But in the “bright valley of love” called Bethel, the mercy which flows from crib and cross touched lives disfigured by the crack which runs through all creation since our first parents’ grabbed at the glory of their Creator in a vain attempt to make it their own. Christmas declares there is mercy for the broken and those pushed aside as worthless. There is mercy for you now made evident in the fact that God became man, pleased with us to dwell.
“From the manger newborn light
Shines in glory through the night
Darkness there no more resides;
In this light faith now abides” (332:7 LSB)