Sometimes on New Year’s Eve, we may be happy that a year is over. Sometimes a year has been so filled with suffering, sorrow, sickness, and death that we just want to be done with it. At the same time, we may also look upon the coming year with trepidation: another year in which we will strive unsuccessfully to get accomplished all we hope to do, another year filled with yet unknown anxieties. What tragedies await us this year? Who will fall ill this year? Who will be taken from us too soon? What events will rend our hearts in two?
Sitting in his basement prison cell in the Prinz-Albrecht-Straße Gestapo headquarters in Berlin, doubtlessly Dietrich Bonhoeffer felt similar sadness, fears, and anxieties for the future. Having spent the entire year of 1944 behind bars in western Berlin’s Tegel Prison for his participation in plots to kill Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer was separated from his friends, his family, his fiancée, and his church. There must not have seemed like much for which he could thank God in the past year.
His present circumstances could not be said to give him any joy either. While his earlier accommodations at the military prison at Tegel would have been anything but comfortable, they would have seemed nearly palatial compared to the hell he experienced at Gestapo headquarters. In his cell at Prinz-Albrecht-Straße, Bonhoeffer would have likely been unable to sleep due to the constant screams of the inmates who were tortured by the black-shirted troops of Heinrich Himmler’s SS.
Moreover, the coming year held nothing good for Bonhoeffer. In February of 1945, the SS moved him to Buchenwald concentration camp, where so many opponents of the Nazis’ regime of terror, including many clergymen, met their end. After two hellish months, the SS again moved Bonhoeffer, this time to the concentration camp at Flossenbürg, whose name was synonymous with death, since so many were executed there by the SS. In fact, it was there that Bonhoeffer would join the ranks of those murdered by the darkness of Hitler’s monstrous Third Reich and, more importantly, the ranks of the saints triumphant whose light is the Lamb of God.
With such a past, present, and unknown future, one would not expect much in the way of hope for a good New Year for Bonhoeffer. And yet, in the damp, cold darkness of his cell, bereft of light, friends, and family, Bonhoeffer wrote his last theological work, a poem written to his fiancée Maria von Wedemeyer, entitled, “Von Guten Mächten Wunderbar Geborgen,” a text full of hope in the graciousness and power of God. This poem has since been made into a hymn and can be found in the German Lutheran hymnal, the Evangelischen Gesangbuch. It has also been translated into English and adapted as “By Gracious Powers So Wonderfully Sheltered” in Evangelical Lutheran Worship.
In this hymn, Bonhoeffer leaves us a theological legacy that takes seriously the sorrows of life and the reign of death in a world still under the power of sin and the devil. But it’s a hymn that also confesses hope in a God who holds all things in his hands and demonstrates faithfulness to his promise to work all things together for his children’s ultimate good. With all that has happened in his life, Bonhoeffer still holds on to that promise and is even able to praise God amid horrific suffering, deprivation, and fear. Here is a man of God who has been tortured, separated from friends, robbed of judicial process, and condemned to a future that holds almost certain death.
Yet, in the midst of this, Bonhoeffer confesses the promise of God’s graciousness. In spite of all of his suffering and an uncertain but undoubtedly dark future. Bonhoeffer proclaims that he will live out his days without fear, “come what may,” because his life is still wrapped in the power of God’s grace.
Bonhoeffer’s poem makes a powerful New Year’s hymn for Christians today. In a world filled with natural disasters, wars, corrupt governments, and uncivil discourse, we need the message of God’s grace Bonhoeffer proclaims here. Amid lives wrecked by suffering, pain, death, and so many broken promises, we need the all-enveloping love of God in Christ confessed by this preacher who is about to cross over into the arms of his Savior.
The real power of his hymn comes from the fact that Bonhoeffer does not offer a rosy picture of life or any of the tropes so typical of cheap piety that tell us that everything is always right, that things happen for a reason, and that we should try to stay positive. Bonhoeffer pulls no punches whatsoever. Life is hard, even impossible. The darkness surrounds us; the silence deepens.
At the same time, though, says Bonhoeffer, God is present with us through good and bad, at morning and evening, through light and dark, and promises to go with us into the future. This is the only thing that can get us through this life. In the midst of suffering, temptation, and fear that would lead us into despair, the light of God shines, because he has entered into our world as the Child of Mary, became one of us, experienced life with all of its hardships, died and was raised to life again for us. As the author of Hebrews tells us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15). We have a high priest, and God, in Christ who knows all of our sorrows and took them with him to the cross, dying in our place, giving us his salvation in exchange for our suffering, his life for our death. Because of that, we can face whatever life holds for us because our Savior and God has gone before us and goes with us into the future, “come what may.”
In the third verse of his hymn, Bonhoeffer puts this truth to us in this way:
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling,
Out of so good and so beloved a Hand.
The reason that we can accept the cup of suffering about which Bonhoeffer writes, and from which he personally drank so deeply, is because the hand that gives it to us bears the marks of the nails of the cross. The reason we can go into the coming year with hope is not because of some trite idea of starting the New Year right. It is because our God, Jesus Christ, goes before us and with us. We have no idea what 2020 will hold for any of us. We don’t know what successes, failures, triumphs, tragedies, sicknesses, or deaths await us. Of one thing, however, we can be absolutely sure: that God, our Savior, holds us all in his nail-pierced hand, and that he is with us.
So wonderfully surrounded by good powers,
We await with hope, come what may!
God is with us at eve and morning hours,
And goes with us into each new day.