A remarkable confluence
This particular April 9th – in the year 2020 – enjoys a remarkable confluence of religious moments. For Western Christians, it is Maundy Thursday, the beginning of the great Three Days that culminate on Easter. For our Jewish neighbors, it is the first day of Passover, one of the three major festivals, celebrating the Exodus from Egypt. It also marks 75 years since the Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was hanged on Hitler’s orders as the fated end of the Nazis’ Third Reich loomed no the near horizon.
Bonhoeffer was executed for his part in a failed effort to assassinate Hitler. More broadly, he died because of his conviction as a Christian that the Nazi regime had raised its Führer into the place of God, demanding people’s highest allegiance and unquestioning loyalty. For Bonhoeffer, it was worth risking his life to take the stand that there is no other God than the God of Israel, whom Jesus called his father.
Passover marks the liberation of Hebrew slaves from a Pharaoh who claimed divine status and absolute obedience. Despite nine unmistakable demonstrations that he could not control the simplest elements of creation, Pharaoh insisted on asserting his claim to own and control the Hebrews. In the Exodus it became clear that there is no other God than the one who created heaven and earth.
The great Three Days lead us on a journey with Jesus from his life of humble service through betrayal, abandonment, suffering, and the cruelest of deaths. From “your will be done” in Gethsemane to “into your hands I commit my spirit” on the cross, he could see no other God than the one who had given him life, sustained him through temptation, gave him power over demons, and called him to care for everyone as a child of God.
When Dietrich Bonhoeffer chose to put his life in jeopardy, there was as yet no assurance how World War II would end, that the Third Reich would fall, or that his acts of conviction, principle, and faith would make any difference at all. It was a time of profound uncertainty and suffering. Conflicting voices clamored for attention. Mutually exclusive values battled for people’s hearts.
For Bonhoeffer, it was the clarity of the witness made by Israel and the church that lit his path. Passover proclaims the one God and hymns God’s power for life over death and human freedom over inhuman slavery. The great Three Days remember the victory of the one God over betrayal and death, vindicating love that serves. Those beacons shone through the darkness and fog of uncertainty to guide Bonhoeffer. They shine today, as well, for all of us who struggle to chart a path for ourselves into God’s future.