A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell, Part 1
By Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a famous pastor and theologian from the Germany of both World Wars. He famously took part in a plot to assassinate Hitler in 1942-1943. The plot ultimately failed, and he was arrested on April 5, 1943 in connection to that plot. While in prison in May 1943, he wrote this sermon to his close friend Eberhard Bethge, on the occasion of Eberhard’s wedding. It is written down for posterity, and published as part of Bonhoeffer’s ‘Letters and Papers from Prison,’ which is widely available as a book. Bonhoeffer was executed in the Flossenburg concentration camp on April 9, 1945, two weeks before the Allied armies reached the camp.
‘A Wedding Sermon from a Prison Cell,’ Part 1
It is right and proper for a bride and bridegroom to welcome and celebrate their wedding day with a unique sense of triumph. When all the difficulties, obstacles, hindrances, doubts, and misgivings have been, not made light of, but honestly faced and overcome – and it is certainly better not to take everything for granted – then both parties have indeed achieved the most important triumph of their lives. With the ‘Yes’ that they have said to each other, they have by their free choice given a new direction to their lives; they have cheerfully and confidently defied all the uncertainties and hesitations with which, as they know, a lifelong partnership between two people is faced; and by their own free and responsible action they have conquered a new land to live in.
Every wedding must be an occasion of joy that human beings can do such great things, that they have been given such immense freedom and power to take the helm in their life’s journey. The children of the earth are rightly proud of being allowed to take a hand in shaping their own destinies, and something of this pride must contribute to the happiness of a bride and bridegroom.
We ought not to be in too much of a hurry here to speak piously of God’s will and guidance. It is obvious, and it should not be ignored, that it is your own very human wills that are at work here, celebrating their triumph; the course that you are taking at the outset is one that you have chosen for yourselves; what you have done and are doing is not in the first place, something religious, but something quite secular. So you yourselves, and you alone, bear the responsibility for what no one can take from you; or, to put it more exactly, you, Eberhard, have all the responsibility for the success of your venture, with all the happiness that such responsibility involves, and you, Renate, will help your husband and make it easy for him to bear that responsibility, and find your happiness in that. Unless you can boldly say today: ‘That is our resolve, our love, our way’, you are taking refuge in false piety. ‘Iron and steel may pass away, but our love shall abide for ever.’ That desire for earthly bliss, which you want to find in one another, and in which to quote the medieval song, one is the comfort of the other both in body and in soul – that desire is justified before God and man.
Certainly you two, of all people, have every reason to look back with special thankfulness on your lives up to now. The beautiful things and joys of life have been showered on you, you have succeeded in everything, and you have been surrounded by love and friendship. Your ways have, for the most part, been smoothed before you took them, and you have always been able to count on the support of your families and friends. Everyone has wished you well, and now it has been given to you to find each other and to reach the goal of your desires. You yourselves know that no one can create and assume such a life from his own strength, but that what is given to one is withheld from another; and that is what we call God’s guidance. So today, however much you rejoice that you have reached your goal, you will be just as thankful that God’s will and God’s way have brought you here; and however confidently you accept responsibility for your action today, you may and will put it today with equal confidence into God’s hands.
As God today adds His ‘Yes’ to your ‘Yes’, as He confirms your will with His will, and as He allows you, and approves of, your triumph and rejoicing and pride, He makes you at the same time instruments of His will and purpose both for yourselves and for others. In His unfathomable condescension God does add His ‘Yes’ to yours; but by doing so, He creates out of your love something quite new – the holy estate of matrimony.
God is Guiding your Marriage
God is guiding your marriage. Marriage is more than your love for each other. It has a higher dignity and power, for it is God’s holy ordinance, through which He wills to perpetuate the human race till the end of time. In your love you see only your two selves in the world, but in marriage you are a link in the chain of the generations, which God causes to come and to pass away to His glory, and calls into His kingdom. In your love you see only the heaven of your own happiness, but in marriage you are placed at a post of responsibility towards the world and mankind. Your love is your own private possession, but marriage is more that something personal – it is a status, an office. Just as it is the crown, and not merely the will to rule, that makes the king, so it is marriage, and not merely your love for each other, that joins you together in the sight of God and man.
As you first gave the ring to one another and have now received it a second time from the hand of the pastor, so love comes from you, but marriage from above, from God. As high as God is above man, so high are the sanctity the rights, and the promise of marriage above the sanctity, the rights, and the promise of love. It is not your love that sustains the marriage, but from now on, the marriage that sustains your love.
To be continued…
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison, edited by Eberhard Bethge. (Simon and Schuster Touchstone: New York, 1997)