Christmas Sings: Joy Bursts Us Open

Altodorfer Nativity painted in 1511
Altdorfer Nativity painted in 1513

Joy abides with God
and it comes down from God
and embraces spirit, soul, and body;
and where this joy has seized a person,
there it spreads,
there it carries one away,
there it bursts closed doors.

A sort of joy exists
that knows nothing at all
of the heart’s pain, anguish, and dread;
it does not last,
it can only numb a person for the moment.

The joy of God
the poverty of the manger
and the agony of the cross;
that is why it is invincible,
irrefutable.

Excerpted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s final circular letter
to his friends in November 1942, before his imprisonment and execution by the Nazis

Bonhoeffer also wrote about this particular nativity painting by Albrecht Altdorfer:
The Altdorfer Nativity, which portrays the Holy Family at the manger amidst the ruins of a dilapidated house – whatever made him do that 400 years ago, against all tradition? – is especially on my mind these days. Perhaps Altdorfer meant to tell us, “Christmas can, and should, be celebrated in this way too.”


There is nothing attractive or sweet about Altdorfer’s 500 year old portrayal of the nativity scene.  It expresses the stark truth of the Savior’s coming to us: we are in ruins and He was born within our shattered shell.   We cannot be more broken, more fragile than we are in this moment.  He is born into that unwelcoming falling down mess, bringing to us irrefutable joy.

This is joy that bursts outside the boundaries of our misery.
This is incomparable invincible joy to rebuild us from the inside.

This is Christmas celebrated within our broken hearts:  joy amidst the ruins.

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