Read: Luke 2:25-35
Simeon took [the child Jesus] in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:28-32, NRSV).
“What did you get for Christmas?”
It’s a question we have asked and answered all our lives. And yet, this year I have found myself asking it less and responding to it differently. Contentment, I have caught myself saying. That’s what I got for Christmas. Contentment wrapped in trust.
That, of course, is on my best days. On days when I’m having trouble with my contentment quotient, I turn to other more resilient saints for inspiration.
So when a friend from Milan sent me a recording of “By Gentle Powers,” I seized it gratefully, especially when I realized that it was a setting of a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Written from a Gestapo prison in December of 1944, the poem was part of a Christmas and New Year’s greeting Bonhoeffer sent to his fiancé and family. In the letter he claims to be content, surrounded by “your prayers and kind thoughts, passages from the Bible, long-forgotten conversations, pieces of music, books….” But his contentment is also grounded in a strong sense of God’s presence. He talks about being preserved, “night and morning, by kindly, unseen powers.”
And so, the poem begins—
With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I’ll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.
Poem turns into prayer as he continues:
The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou has been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.
Now there’s a prayer that works in a COVID-weary world.
It seems to me that one of the keys to contentment in any century is this ability to find comfort and strength in God’s presence. Old Simeon cradled it in his arms and called it “a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:32). Maybe it was this same Christ-light shining in the darkness that enabled Bonhoeffer to write these words from his prison cell:
Today, let candles shed their radiant greeting,
lo, on our darkness are they not thy light
leading us, haply, to our longed-for meeting?
Thou canst illumine even our darkest night.
While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
Boldly we’ll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
And oh, most surely on each newborn day!
Just a few months after he wrote these words, Bonhoeffer was executed by the Nazis. It must have been the true test of his conviction that we can face the future boldly, come what may. Let us hope that he, like Simeon, could find contentment cradling the Christ-light in his arms. This verse of his poem would suggest that he did:
Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
We will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.
Ponder: How is your contentment quotient? Is that something you pray about? Why or why not?
Listen to By Gentle Powers – Bonhoeffer/Siegfried Fietz. Here is another version with choir and orchestra: Von Guten Mächten-Animato Choir. A version of the poem also appears in many hymnals (e.g. Glory to God, #818) as “By Gracious Powers”.
Pray: May all your powers of good attend us, gracious God. Help us to face the future boldly, come what may. Help us to live these days with you in thought beside us, and pass with you into the coming year.
Introduction to the “God With Us” Series
Emmanuel. It means “God with us.” If ever there was a time to pray for God to be with us, it’s now.
In this series, we let Advent and Christmas hymns lead us in that prayer. Since December is short and we need God with us now, we’re starting early. Besides, there are so many hymns and so little time! Some of the featured hymns will be familiar, and some deserve to be more familiar. But all of them offer unique insights into the miracle of the incarnation.
May these reflections help you feel God’s saving presence in your life and in the life of the world right now.
Come, O Come, Emmanuel!