Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in Breslau, Germany on February 4th in 1906. He was a vocal opponent of the Nazi party. Dietrich Bonhoef-fer began a promising career as a theologian and Lutheran pastor at the University of Berlin in 1931. The political events occurring in Ger-many in the early 1930s, however, soon brought about many profound changes in his life. Bonhoeffer’s opposition to the Nazi party led to his decision to abandon his academic career when Hitler came to power in 1933. He had a bright career ahead of him. He was an intellec-tual in the Lutheran Church but he was beginning to see the face of Jesus in the people being killed by the Nazis and he had to do something.
Hitler’s subsequent policies led to divisions in the German Lutheran Church, and Bonhoeffer became an active member of the Confessing Church that was formed in opposition to Hitler’s totalitarian government. This Church commissioned Bonhoeffer to direct one of the under-ground seminaries that were established for the training of young pastors. The seminary was eventually closed by the Nazis in 1937.
The late 1930s brought further changes for Bonhoeffer. As the German war operation expanded, he was drawn more and more into active opposition against Hitler’s government. Convinced of the righteousness of the course, he eventually became involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Hitler. He was arrested by the Gestapo on April 5, 1943, and spent the next two years in prison. Another attempt to overthrow Hitler in 1945 led to the execution of a number of political prisoners only weeks before the end of the war. Bonhoeffer, only thirty-nine years old at the time, was among them. He was executed by hanging just twenty three days before the Nazi surrender.
A camp doctor who witnessed the execution wrote: “I saw pastor Bonhoeffer…kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. Now one of the last things that Bonhoeffer was heard to have said was, “This is the end…for me the beginning of life.” “This is the end…for me the beginning of life.”
Bonhoeffer was stating a truth. Our true citizenship awaits us in heaven. We are made for Heaven and life here on earth is but an infinitesi-mal part of our life compared to the eternity that waits. So why do we spend so much of our time, 99% of our time probably, focused on the mundane things of this world? St. Paul in the second reading states that Jesus is the one who descended. As we know that descent began with the Annunciation which we celebrated not long ago. Our Lord descended and became human to make visible the invisible love of God. He descended to become a model of holiness. He descended to make us partakers of the divine nature to deify us to elevate our own human nature into God’s own life. Our nature needed to be healed, it was fallen and needed to be raised, and it was dead and needed to rise. We had lost the possession of the good, we had lost heaven, and it was necessary for heaven to be given back to us. And from the moment of our Lord’s incarnation we see him setting things right, restoring humanity to the dignity that we had lost, and even elevating us beyond our original state. God became man so that we might be able to live with God forever in Heaven.
Now St. Paul goes on to say in the second reading that the one who descended is also the one who ascended. Christ brings the human to the divine. What is earthly is intimately wedded to what is heavenly. The king who first came down from heaven, who died, and who rose to life again, has returned triumphantly to heaven, carrying with him his sacred humanity, to take his seat at the right hand of the Father. When Christ ascended into heaven, he took humanity with him. And where he has gone, we hope to follow, for he had gone to prepare a place for us.
Now before ascending Jesus gave us some instructions. He told us to go into the world and to proclaim the Gospel to every creature. And to proclaim the Gospel means keeping the focus on Heaven. There is a paradox that comes with hoping and straining towards Heaven. And it’s this, the more we focus on the Heavenly life to come the more dedicated we become to this world. The more we look towards heaven the more concerned we become with the sufferings and sorrows of other. We have only to look at people such as Pope St. John Paul II, St. Theresa of Calcutta, and St. Damien of Molokai to name just a few to see that this is true. They kept their eyes fixed on Heaven and in do-ing so they made a huge difference here on earth. The ways of Heaven through their actions invaded the ways of Earth. And every time we perform those works of mercy, the ways of Heaven invade the ways of earth. God uses us to bring Heaven to earth.
Pope Benedict once wrote that to focus on Heaven is to focus on Jesus Christ. Because Heaven is a person and it’s Jesus himself what we call Heaven. Keep your eyes on Jesus as Sister Mary so many times told me, as she punched me in the arm. I guess it was the punch in the arm made the message stick.
My prayer for us today is that we always keep our eyes on Jesus and in doing so we proclaim the Gospel with our every word and action. So that through us the ways of Heaven invade the ways the earth. So that when people look at us they know that we are truly citizens of Heaven. And on our death bed may we say: “This is the end…for me the beginning of life.”
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley