We find saints in odd places. Sometimes the stories are dramatic. Sometimes the stories are quiet, even unknown, the gift of a meal to a hungry person, the unheralded donation to keep a mission trip going. But Revelation gives us an insight into what life after death as a saint will be like: a new Jerusalem, a holy city on a hill, with God dwelling with the mortals.
Getting there, though, isn’t particularly easy.
We might consider the sainthood of Mary in our Gospel story today. She was the sister of Jesus’ very good friend Lazarus. Lazarus had died while Jesus was away, taking care of other people with illnesses and problems and doubts. Even as she wept at Jesus’ feet, she was furious with him. She didn’t kneel to honor him, she crumpled to the ground, weeping in rage that Jesus wasn’t there when they needed him, when Lazarus became ill, when his body failed, when he died. She didn’t simply keen with the other mourners as women in that time and place were expected to do – she berated Jesus. “If you had been here, he wouldn’t have died!” You can hear the bitterness in her voice, and Jesus was, as the Gospel says, “greatly disturbed and deeply moved.” He, too, began to weep, because he had made a choice not to return immediately. His intention was to raise Lazarus after death to prove God’s power working through him. But when he saw the pain his plan had caused, he wept, even as he moved to the tomb to raise his friend from the dead. Mary's anger was a kind of saintly rage, wasn't it?
Saints - they appear in all kinds of stories.
Think of the story of a man who is imprisoned, a political prisoner unjustly held. He is on the verge of death. His wife disguises herself as a man, takes a job as a prison guard, and rescues her husband almost at the moment of his death from the tyrant who had imprisoned him. This wife, Lenore, disguised as Fidelio the prison guard, is brave, a saint who saved her husband and others who were about to be executed. She has fought for the right to see her husband in the dungeon, she has fought for the right for him and his fellow prisoners to be brought up into the sunlit courtyard of the jail, and she eventually fights the force of tyranny, the evil Pizarro, by shooting him, then releasing the political prisoners. This woman Lenore, in her passion and courage, feels a bit like Lazarus’ sister Mary, doesn’t she?
This is the story told in the opera “Fidelio,” written by Ludwig van Beethoven.
A dramatic story – after all, it IS grand opera…but perhaps not so farfetched.
In the midst of World War II, a Hungarian attorney, Hans von Dohnanyi, was imprisoned by the Third Reich. The Nazis had reason to imprison him. He had been involved in a plot with several family members to kill Hitler. Dohnanyi’s crime had been to keep detailed records of the Nazis’ oppression of Jews, homosexuals, and communists.
When he first began to fear he would be imprisoned, Dohnányi worked out a clever system whereby he could communicate with his family from behind bars. His wife, Frau Dohnányi, sent her husband books containing hidden messages made by marking various letters in various words on various pages; when strung together, the underlined letters formed instructions from wife to husband.
Frau Dohnanyi sent him one such message that she was sending him a package of cookies tainted with diphtheria. He would become ill with the disease and be transferred to the hospital from the concentration camp where he was being held. Dohnányi did become ill, but he was moved, not to the hospital where they thought he would go, but to a room guarded by Nazi soldiers at a clinic in Berlin. In a striking parallel with the plot of Fidelio, Dohnányi's wife disguised herself as a nurse so she could see her husband without peril to herself. A doctor who worked at the clinic tried to help the family to escape from Nazi Germany.
It was not to be. Because the SS was guarding the family residence where their children were living, escape would have been impossible, even if their father had managed to be smuggled out of the clinic. Hans von Dohnányi, and four other family members were executed on the same day, April 9, 1945, in separate concentration camps.
Not as happy an ending as the one in the opera, but was Frau von Dohnanyi any less a saint because the plan did not succeed? Was Hans’ opposition to the Nazis any less noble because he died? But in her courage and attempt to save her family, wasn’t Frau Dohnanyi a little like Lazarus’ sister Mary? Not the most prominent name, but a saint in her bravery? And wasn’t Hans a saint for speaking out for those who had no voice against overwhelming odds? Sainthood is not a goal-defined honor – it is not about succeeding in achieving something other than faithfully following what Christ taught us about how we are to love God and love each other.
But the story of Dohnanyi is not simply about its odd parallels with the opera Fidelio, which Hans’s father Ernst had conducted in prewar Berlin and which his son Christoph recently conducted at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. There is yet another saint in the story…the brother of Frau Dohnanyi, one of the men who shared that imprisonment with Hans.
His name was Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran minister and already a highly regarded theologian before he was imprisoned. He had been in the United States a few years earlier, studying with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary, and was deeply impressed with the kind of muscular Christianity practiced at Abyssinian Baptist Church up in Harlem. He saw the power of a Gospel of Social Justice and the necessity for the church to speak in the world against evil and injustice. He returned to Germany in 1931 to be ordained and to take a post teaching theology at the University of Berlin, but his career was cut short by the coming to power of the Nazis, with Hitler as their Fuhrer. He gave a sermon on the radio decrying what he saw as an idolatrous cult of Der Fueher…and that was the beginning of his long walk to his death. He opposed a pro-Nazi Christian movement called the German Christians, many of whom won high posts in the Nazi regime, and allied himself with what was eventually to become the Confessing Church, a group of church leaders who opposed Nazism.A schism in the German church between those who thought that Hitler was right and those who cried out against Hitler’s racism. Bonhoeffer went to London to take a post in the German speaking church there in 1933, amidst an outcry from others in the Confessing Church, who thought he was running away. He wanted to use the message of the Confessing Church to drum up ecumenical support for its views, to oppose Hitler and Nazism. He returned to Germany to found some underground seminaries, not beholden to Hitler, and then went back to Union Theoloigcal Seminary in New York in the late 30’s. He decided, though, he had to return to Germany, to continue to fight for the true Gospel and against the Nazi’s racist policies. His words to Neibuhr: "I have come to the conclusion that I made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period in our national history with the people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people...Christians in Germany will have to face the terrible alternative of either willing the defeat of their nation in order that Christian civilization may survive or willing the victory of their nation and thereby destroying civilization. I know which of these alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security."
It was, of course, a death sentence. He had begun working years before with his brother in law, Hans von Dohnanyi, and another small group plotting Hitler’s overthrow. He was arrested in 1943, and taken to Tegel prison. Later, he was put into Buchenwald, and then to Flossenburg, where he was hung. Some of his writings were smuggled out of prison, and later published as “Letters from Prison.”
Bonhoeffer argued that Christians should not retreat from the world, but have a duty to act within it. He believed that as faithful people, we were required to do two things: to fight for the implementation of justice and to accept divine suffering. He insisted that the church, like the Christians, "had to share in the sufferings of God at the hands of a godless world" if it were to be a true church of Christ.
A saint? No question about it. He is honored as such by the Lutherans and the Anglicans. But as powerful as Bonhoeffer’s story is, as extraordinary as his acts were, there are other saints in the story as well. The saints whose names are not known, perhaps a prison guard who had a hand in smuggling out Bonhoeffer’s writings, perhaps an Abwehr official who snuck Bonhoeffer out of prison briefly to meet with leaders of churches from England and America, to tell them what was really happening and what they must do, perhaps even the doctor who attended Bonhoeffer’s hanging, who wrote: “I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer ... kneeling on the floor praying fervently to God. I was most deeply moved by the way this lovable man prayed, so devout and so certain that God heard his prayer. At the place of execution, he again said a short prayer and then climbed the few steps to the gallows, brave and composed. His death ensued after a few seconds. In the almost fifty years that I worked as a doctor, I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God.” And of course, Frau Dohnanyi, who saw her brother and husband killed in the service of what Christ had taught.
All of these other saints, the ones whose faces are not carved into stone in the great cathedrals, the ones whose names are not known to us, they share the same promise spoken of in Revelation, living in the holy city on the hill, the new Jerusalem, with God among them.
So part of our work today as we honor all the saints is to remember the invisible saints before us and among us. You know the saints in your lives – the grandmother to whom you ran for comfort when your parents chastised you, the teacher who encouraged you to keep working on your math, the crossing guard who smiles at your children every day, the cashier in the supermarket who always has a smile.
Sainthood isn’t always a matter of martyrdom. It isn’t always dramatic. It doesn’t always encompass an entire lifetime’s work.
Sometimes it is just a few words, witnessing to power of the Gospel in a simple way, speaking for someone who has no one to speak for him, doing what the Gospel teaches. Saints are all around us, giving us a glimpse into that heavenly kingdom, the new Jerusalem, and a seat with God right alongside us.
Let God, and all the saints, be praised!