Remembrance Day in the Church

In 1932, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached in Berlin on Volkstrauertag—the German equivalent to Remembrance Day in Canada.  Interestingly, one of his main emphases throughout the sermon is that the way Memorial Day is observed in the church should differ from the way that is observed in other contexts.  I made a similar point in a 2013 article entitled, “Remembering Rightly: The Pastoral Dilemma of Remembrance Day,” although I can’t recall if I had read Bonhoeffer’s 1932 sermon at the time I wrote it.  Here’s a penetrating paragraph from near the beginning of Bonhoeffer’s sermon:

Memorial Day can be observed in very different ways. It is something different if the bereaved families, something different if the state, something different if the church is observing it. In the families on a day like this, all our thoughts may be centered on the person of the one torn from our midst by the war, and it may be that here all our love for this individual person is reawakened, and our mourning is a mourning out of love. And if in great public or state memorial celebrations, the historically great German actions and sacrifices are commemorated, our mourning may be proud mourning. Finally, if everywhere else the human being and his achievements take a central place—and truly it is important enough that today we also are reminded of great human deeds—all of this, though, is something different from what the church of Christ has to say here. When the church observes Memorial Day [Volkstrauertag], it must have something special to say. It cannot be one voice in the chorus of others who loudly call out the cry of mourning for the lost sons of the nation across the land and by such cries of mourning call to new deeds and great courage. It cannot, like the ancient singers of great heroic deeds, wander about and sing the song of praise [Preislied] of battle and the death of the heroes into the listening ears of enthralled young people. The church should not expect the laurels that decorate the great singer, for it does not itself make laurel wreaths for any human being. How gladly it would do so. It is hard not to be allowed to do that. On this day the church stands here so strangely without ceremony, so little proud, so little heroic. The church is like the seer of ancient times who, when all are gathered to commemorate a great deed of the nation, is wholeheartedly present but suffers because he sees something that the others do not see and must speak of what he sees, although no one wants to hear it. We all feel it: People don’t want any disturbance here. People don’t want any discord. People want everyone to participate without exception. People don’t want anyone to see anything different that others do not see. And if it happens anyway, you have to try to get rid of a person like that.  And so it happens then that such seers are thrown out of the celebration, chased away with scorn and contempt by the very people they want to help, whom they love like nothing else in the world. But especially because they love them so much, they have become seers. The one who loves the most is the one who sees deepest, sees the greatest danger. A seer has never been popular. That is why the church will also not be popular, least of all on days like this.1

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ecumenical, Academic, and Pastoral Work: 1931-1932, ed. Victoria J. Barnett, Mark S. Brocker, and Michael B. Lukens, trans. Anne Schmidt-Lange et al. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012), 420-421.

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