On December 19, 1944, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his bleak underground prison cell, began to write a Christmas letter to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer. In it he included a poem to be shared with his parents called "Powers of Good," which has been running through my head in the last few days.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Tegel Prison near Berlin.

The sixth Advent season of the war was a terrifying time of impending overwhelming disaster. In the circumstances, Bonhoeffer's affirmation of God's enduring and comforting presence was not just a conventional expression of escapist pietism, but, rather, a most moving and timely confession of faith.

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for the prisoner, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He had already been imprisoned for nineteen months, mainly in Cell 92 of Tegel prison on the outskirts of Berlin. He had been arrested in April 1943 on suspicion of being involved in smuggling Jewish refugees to Switzerland. The investigations had dragged on for a year and a half.

But then in October 1944 he had been transferred to the far more ominous Interrogation Centre of the Gestapo's main headquarters in downtown Berlin. He now faced the even more serious charges of abetting the conspiracy that had unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate the Führer, Adolf Hitler, a few months earlier. He would likely be arraigned before the Chief Justice of the People's Court, Roland Freisler, whose vindictiveness had already sentenced thousands to death for treason against the Volk, and was to do the same to Dietrich's brother, Klaus.

In the meantime the Gestapo was relentlessly trying to entrap him into incriminating confessions about his friends and relatives. What kind of a faith could withstand such ruthless pressures and still witness to God's powers of goodness?

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for Maria. She was only twenty. She had been brought up on her family's scenic rural estate in Pomerania, where she could ride her horses through the woods and fields. But the 1941 campaign of the German army against the Soviet enemy brought this idyll to an end. Within a year her adored father and her elder brother Max had been killed on the eastern front.

She was sent to help her grandmother on another estate, and there met Pastor Bonhoeffer, who was nearly twice her age. Their relationship was very formal, and she addressed him for a long time as "Herr Pastor." When her mother sensed that their relationship might develop further, she forbade them to meet for a year. Maria was far too young.

But even before this edict could take place, Dietrich was arrested miles away in Berlin. Her fiancé a traitor to his country? Opposed to the cause for which her father and brother had died? As Dietrich realized, his fate made her situation "bewildering, terrible, unimaginable". Nevertheless she managed to get to see him in prison in Tegel - in the company of a prison guard - and wrote effusively to him about her plans once he was released. But it never happened.

Maria von Wedemeyer, Dietrich Bonhoeffer's fiancée

In early 1945 she heard that Bonhoeffer had been taken away to the remote concentration camp of Flossenbiirg in Bavaria. Somehow she managed to get there by train, despite travel disruptions, bombing raids and food shortages. But when she got to the camp she was denied entry.

No one would even tell her if her Dietrich was inside. On April 9, 1945, on Hitler's direct orders, all those prisoners involved in the July conspiracy were summarily executed. Two weeks later the camp was liberated by American army units. It was several months before Maria learnt that Dietrich had been put to death.

By that time she herself had been forced to flee from her home in the face of the advancing Russian troops. She had taken her younger siblings in the estate's farm carts across miles of rough countryside to seek refuge in western Germany, leaving her mother and grandmother at the mercy of the invaders.

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for the church. Ever since 1933, Bonhoeffer too had seen church leaders betray the church's traditional doctrines in order to curry favour with "the winds of change". Bishops had used their episcopal authority to discipline pastors who stood up uncompromisingly for Christian orthodoxy. Theologians had argued that the church must regain its popularity by moving with the times and shedding all kinds of mediaeval morality and conventions. Only the Confessing Church minority stood firm.

But, as Bonhoeffer knew, opposing heresies was going to be a costly discipleship. In 1937, his mentor Martin Niemöller was arrested and sent to Sachsenhausen concentration camp. All over the country. Confessing Church pastors and congregations were harassed and intimidated because they stood fast to their principles.

They were chiefly opposed to the attempts to Nazify the church by distorting or abandoning the Gospel in favour of politically opportune ideas, including the notion that Hitler was the Saviour of the German people. Too many church people accepted these racist and antisemitic ideas and failed to realise that the Nazi creed was based on hatred and violence.

Bonhoeffer was appalled when bishops called for Christian pastors of Jewish origin to be banished from their parishes, or the laity relegated to separate services, at the very time when these men and women needed sympathy and comfort to overcome their isolation. He condemned the failure of the church to stand in solidarity with these victims of hatred and discrimination. He was immensely shocked when the churches instead gave their support to the Nazi wars of conquest and destruction.

Above all, it was the wanton violence against the Jews, witnessed in silence by the majority of church members, which convinced him that he must join those who wanted to use force to overthrow such an evil regime. After war broke out, Bonhoeffer was virtually alone in praying for Germany's defeat. The bitter legacy of the churches' capitulation was to last for many years.

It was a time of impending overwhelming disaster for the city. From the end of 1943, British bombers took advantage of the long dark nights to launch their almost incessant attacks on one part of Berlin or another. Night after night, the city reverberated with the noise of droning airplanes, the howling of air-raid sirens, the sharp cracking explosions of anti-aircraft guns, the frenetic flickering of the searchlights, the menacing whine of bombs being dropped, the sickening thud of their impact on tenements, offices and houses, the pervasive irremovable dust, smoke and ash drifting across the ever-increasing ruins. Whole streets disappeared under piles of cascading rubble. The smell of burning pervaded everywhere. Power was disrupted. Water lines spewed aimlessly for hours on end.

By Advent it was very cold and heating supplies had virtually vanished. The mood of the people was traumatized, grey and exhausted. The unpredictability of not knowing when or where the next bomb would fall took a terrible toll. The prisoners in the Gestapo's cells were not exempt. As one of those who survived later recorded: "Tightly squeezed together we were standing in our air-raid shelter when a bomb hit it with an enormous explosion. For a second it seemed as though the shelter were bursting and the ceiling crashing down on top of us. It rocked like a ship tossing in the storm, but it held. At that moment Dietrich Bonhoeffer showed his mettle. He remained quite calm."

At that time of impending overwhelming disaster, Bonhoeffer could still write, "Advent is a time especially dear to me. Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent; one waits, hopes, does this, that or the other, but the door is shut and can only be opened from the outside."

And in his final message to Maria and his parents, his belief in God's good providence for Advent still shines forth.

Bonhoeffer has no known burial site. But his courageous faith in the power of God's forgiveness has proven in subsequent years to be an inspiring source of healing and cure for the sins of his nation and his church.

The poem

Powers of Good

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.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening:
the long days of our sorrow still endure:
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

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.

But, should it be thy will once more to release us
to life's enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we've learned from sorrow shall
increase us,and all our life be dedicate as thine.

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.

When now the silence deepens for our harkening
grant we may hear thy children's voices raise
from all the unseen world around us darkening
their universal paean, in thy praise.

While all the powers of Good aid and attend us
boldly we'll face the future, be it what may.
At even, and at morn. God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each new year's day!

- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Advent, 1944

Dr. John Conway taught at the University of British Columbia for 38 years. This article first appeared in Cornerstone, the parish newsletter of St. James, Vancouver. Dr. Conway is willing to show a newly released documentary video (85 min.) on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's life, and facilitate discussion. Phone 604 224-3471 or email jconway@ interchange.ubc.ca