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Albert Schweitzer's Advent Sermon, 1930

This is a selection from a translation of a sermon Schweitzer gave in the open air to the hospital workers, patients and their families at his mission-hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, followed by comments (historical notes) about the book in which the full translation appears. [Also on this page: The meaning of Christmas for Japan's "Hidden Christians" during the two hundred and fifty years of their forbidden existence.]

The Second Sunday of Advent, 7 December 1930

Text source: Albert Schweitzer, The African Sermons [1913-1935], ed. and tr. from the French by Steven E.G. Melamed, Sr. (Syracuse University Press, 2003), p. 128-129.

This holiday is called Christmas and means that Jesus, the King of hearts, is born. And these Sundays that come before the feast of Christmas -- these four Sundays -- are called the Sundays of Advent. During these Sundays, Christians prepare their hearts to celebrate Christmas well. And they reflect: In what sense did Jesus, the King of hearts, come into the world?...

We all know that the King of hearts has come to create the Kingdom of love. Kings, emperors, the president of the republic, ministers, rulers -- all the great men -- order other men about. They command and say, "If you do not obey, I will punish you." They protect people who kill, they protect people who steal, they command that people pay taxes, and they order many other things as well. But have you ever seen an order, or a ruler, who commanded men to love other men, to forgive them, or to be good to them?... This is why Jesus is come, the King of hearts who governs the hearts of men and who has said: "I want you to love one another."...

When [rulers and administrators] go far away and are no longer in their country, there is no longer anyone who obeys them.... If the commander did not have soldiers to catch those who do not pay their taxes, who would pay the tax? Not even Miss Mathilde [Kottmann], not even Miss Emma [Haussknecht], not the even the doctor would pay the tax ... Well then, the Lord Jesus himself does not have a single militiaman, but nonetheless there are thousands of men and whole peoples who obey him.... You have never found someone who said, "I obey a ruler who died a long time ago." But Jesus died a long, long time ago.... but nevertheless people obey him even more than when he was alive.

You can see that there is in my heart a voice that obeys Jesus -- you see it here before your eyes, entirely before your eyes. Who has built this hospital? It was not the doctor by himself. The doctor has only built because the Lord Jesus told him, "You must love all the people here in Gabon and you must take care of them." This hospital is therefore a village of the Kingdom of Jesus. Therefore all of you who come to this hospital need not ask, "But is it true that there is a Kingdom of Jesus?" You see it before you, the Kingdom of Jesus.

And these Sundays before Christmas, we all thank God to have finally sent the King of hearts into the world. We wonder if Jesus is already the King of hearts in our hearts -- if we obey him enough. All of you who are here, and also those who still have heard almost nothing of Jesus ... I want each of you to ask, "Is Jesus the King of my heart and is it through him that I become a good man?" Because when a man gives his heart to Jesus, he is happy. He has peace in his heart. And when he does not give it, he is miserable, for he does not have peace. And I want all of you to be happy and for you to have peace in your hearts. Amen.

Below: two photographs by Charles R. Joy, Lambaréné, June 1947 (in The Africa of Albert Schweitzer (1948), pages titled "Fellow Worshipers" and "The Holy Spirit is like that ..."). In the left photograph the Sunday morning service was being given by one of the hospital's nurses; Schweitzer preached on alternative Sundays in those days, in later years not at all.

Schweitzer among the congregation, Lambarene 1947 Schweitzer preaching, Lambarene 1947

Next: "A Sunday Service at Lambaréné, 1931" (in George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: the Man and His Mind (1947), facing page 124)

Schweitzer preaching, Lambarene 1931

On the Sunday before Palm Sunday, 1931, Schweitzer wrote in a circular letter from Lambaréné to the friends and patrons of the hospital:

The mission station, which can be reached only by water, is too far from the hospital to allow the patients and their companions to attend services there. We therefore have prayers at the hospital on Sunday. If I am prevented from preaching, then I am replaced by Fräulein Haussknecht. The services are held outdoors.... I preach under the overhanging roof of a ward, amid the worshipers who have taken their seats underneath; the rest sit under the overhanging roof of the opposite building. Next to me stand two translators, each of whom renders my every sentence into one or two languages because members of different tribes come together in the hospital. For the prayer, which is likewise translated sentence by sentence into three or four languages, there are quite a number of people who fold their hands for the first time. (Albert Schweitzer, Letters 1905-1965, tr. Neugroschel (1992), p. 119)

It is inexplicable to me that the journalist ... can tell people in Finland that I said, "The Christian mission signified a great spiritual decline for Africa." I myself have joyfully and emotionally preached the Gospel at the Lambaréné mission church. The Gospel has been a great spiritual boon for the natives. It has liberated them from the dreadful concepts of the heathen life they used to lead. It has freed them from the fear of magic and cruelty that the witch doctors practice! And it has brought them Jesus and the faith in the kind Father in heaven. I have heard the natives thank me for the tidings of the Gospel. (Letter from Lambaréné, 22 October 1961, ibid. p. 311-312)

Below: "Sunday sermon at Lambaréné: Schweitzer with two Gabonese interpreters" (in Out of My Life and Thought, 1990 edition). Schweitzer turned 75 years old on 14 January 1950. He always wore a pith helmet outdoors because he was convinced that the tropical sun gave Europeans heat stroke, which was an illness difficult to treat, as it had given him when he first went to Africa. This was later disproved, but during Schweitzer's time he required all his white staff to wear hats outdoors. "If you want to get heat stroke, please go to someone else's hospital to do it," he told them.

Schweitzer preaching, Lambarene 1950s

Note: the photographs on this page are all from the new hospital Schweitzer founded in 1927 almost two miles upstream from Lambaréné. Schweitzer founded the original hospital in 1913, and it was open 1913-1917 and 1924-1927.

Who was Boulinghi? The Decline of Scholarship.

Preface: Although I am extremely grateful to the editor and translator of these sermons, Mr. Melamed, for having given them to us, I am also disappointed that the publisher, especially being a university publisher, did not see that this book was reviewed before publication by scholars or readers who were at the very least familiar with the standard texts in the bibliography of books by and about Schweitzer.

[Note: even the book's cover and frontispiece have an inappropriate photograph, because obviously it is a photograph at a graveside, not a sermon being given at a Sunday service, of which there are many photographs of Schweitzer with his two African interpreters at either side.]

Identification of Boulinghi

"And so Jesus went to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the major city of the Jewish people, and because Boulinghi is not Jewish he cannot say the word Je-ru-sa-lem." (From the Sermon "19. Palm Sunday, 13 April 1930" (p. 59-60))

[Melamed makes a footnote to the name 'Boulinghi'.] Someone well known to the Lambaréné community. The second half of this sentence does not flow logically from the first half. Why Schweitzer introduces the name of a man who cannot pronounce Je-ru-sa-lem eludes us. There may be some explanatory text missing here, but we have no way of knowing what is missing. (p. 59n12)

Even without the "missing explanatory text" (see the second paragraph below), it should be apparent that Schweitzer is helping or correcting the pronunciation of one of his interpreters, who as he says cannot pronounce the word 'Jerusalem'. Now, apparently, two articles by Albert Schweitzer, the first dated 25 July 1930, about which Melamed writes in his Introduction: "What follows is my translation of the complete article." (p. xxx)

I am flanked by two translators, who repeat my discourse, sentence by sentence. The one on my right translates into Pahouin, the one on my left into Bendjabi, a dialect that the peoples of the interior all understand, more or less. (Albert Schweitzer, "A Sunday Sermon in the Virgin Forest", in The African Sermons p. xxxi-xxxiv)

And then this:

During the address I have two interpreters at my side, one on the right and one on the left, who repeat each of my sentences. The one on my right translates them into the Pahouin language, the other on my left into that of the Bendjabis, which most people from the interior understand more or less. The interpreter on the right is either the hospital tailor, Sombunaga, who is a Christian, or the hospital orderly, Mendoume, who is not yet one. On the left the orderlies Boulingui and Dominique, who are both in the same position as Mendoume, take it in turns to act as interpreter. (From Albert Schweitzer, "A Sunday in Lambaréné", in George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: the Man and His Mind (1947), p. 120; Seaver gives only the date "early 1930's" and suggests it is addressed to Schweitzer's "friends in England" (p. 118).)

Is not 'Boulingui' a variant spelling of 'Boulinghi'? (See below for the variant 'Bolinghi'.) Schweitzer had to write African names phonetically in French or German. The latter spelling of the name is found in the index to Seaver's book: "Boulinghi (native asst.), 154-5" (p. 343). It refers to the following passage from an article Schweitzer wrote for the Spectator that appeared on 6 September 1935 (Seaver, p. 153).

At the beginning of April, Boulinghi, one of my earliest native assistants, returned to his home some two hundred miles to the south. He was in my service for ten years. Four years he supervised the ward for operated patients, and he helped to save many a human life by conscientiously observing the pulse, breathing and general appearance of those in his care by day or by night, and immediately reporting to us any suspicious change in their condition. He has been ailing for three years and only occupied with light work, and now he has no longer been able to resist the longing to see his native village once more. Sorrowfully we gazed after the boat which bore away our faithful old helper.

There is also a record of when Boulinghi began his work. This is found in the chapter titled "1926" in Schweitzer's More from the Primeval Forest (1931):

In the course of the summer Joseph [the hospital's first medical assistant, Schweitzer's only helper in the early days] leaves us ... Fortunately, we have managed to attract several new black orderlies. The best of them is Bolinghi, and he is entrusted with the care of the surgical cases. (On the Edge of the Primeval Forest & More from the Primeval Forest, tr. Campion (1947), p. 214)

Again from Melamed there is a sermon with a footnote about Boulinghi.

Haven't you ever noticed sometimes that when the Doctor has been angry because someone has stolen wood [] done wickedness, he goes to punish them [but] then he does not punish them? [They might think], "Oh, the doctor isn't a great chief! He forgives []. Then everyone can do what he likes at this hospital!" Isn't this true? Well then! Do you know why the doctor does this, why he forgives even Boulinghi when he acted so foolishly? Why does [the doctor] have servants when he knows that they steal, lie, and drink wine; [why does he] keep them nevertheless?" (First of two sermons on "Forgiveness" [no. 28], "Sunday, 6 July 1930" (All brackets are the translator's), p. 88)

[There is a footnote to the sentence with Boulinghi's name in it.] Someone well known to the Lambaréné community. He appears to be rather notorious. There is no further information about him. See also footnote 12 in Sermon 19. (p. 88n20)

Schweitzer's sense of humor not grasped

Melamed's version of the following passage does not include the word 'black', thereby obscuring Schweitzer's meaning.

A black evangelist who, as a patient, attended the Hospital Services, related at the Mission station that the Doctor preaches just as if he had studied theology like a missionary. ("A Sunday in Lambaréné", Seaver, p. 124)

Melamed in his Introduction to The African Sermons quotes the passage from Schweitzer's Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke (1990), p. 141-142, remarking about it that "the local clergy doubted his intellectual qualifications" (p. xxx) -- without making clear that by the "local clergy" is meant precisely the African preachers and not the European missionaries who were quite aware of Schweitzer's academic qualifications, of his "European credentials" (which were, as well, all that they themselves possessed), and that the issue for the native preachers was not Schweitzer's intellect but his education, of which they were ignorant.

I was invited to attend as an observer the meeting of the Synod with the missionaries and the African preachers sat in council together. One day, when I had expressed my opinion on a certain point at the request of the missionaries, one of the African preachers suggested that the matter was outside the Doctor's province "because he is not a theologian".

The two stories above show Schweitzer's gentle amusement at the pretensions of newly-schooled Africans. They belong with this story from More from the Primeval Forest:

In the middle of September, the first rains fall. The cry then goes us to get all the building timber under cover. Since we have scarcely an able-bodied man in the hospital, I begin, with the help of two faithful workers, to drag the beams and boards. Then I see an African in white clothing sitting by a patient he has come to visit. "Say friend," I call, "won't you give us a little help?" "I am an intellectual -- I don't drag timber," comes the answer. "You're lucky," I respond. "I wanted to be an intellectual too, but I didn't make it." (Quoted in Pilgrimage to Humanity, tr. Stuermann (1961), p. 16)

Someone, I'm sorry I don't remember who, notes that earlier than Schweitzer's motto "Reverence for Life" came to him his motto "Reverence for Truth". The native Africans Schweitzer served were primitive peoples; that is what they were, not of course by nature but by culture (in the anthropologist's sense), but at that time and at that place that is what they were. The truth is not served by distorting history.

The Mysterious Letter Bentley Alludes To

James Bentley's book Albert Schweitzer: The Enigma (1992): Aside from its perverse readings of Schweitzer's Memoirs of Childhood and Youth (-- Bentley's has pretensions to psychological insight and worldly wisdom which ignore the plain meaning of Schweitzer's text --), his account of the occasion of the visit that led to Schweitzer's Memoirs being written is utterly at variance to Schweitzer's letter, a letter which anyone can now read in English, but which Bentley has tried to make a mystery out of as if it were something dark and full of shame.

First the background. Oskar Pfister, a friend of Albert Schweitzer's, was a well-known Zürich psychoanalyst. In the summer of 1923 Schweitzer was traveling across Switzerland, and during a two-hour wait in Zürich he visited his friend.

[Dr. Pfister] asked me to narrate some incidents of my childhood just as they came into my mind. He wanted to use them for a young people's magazine. Soon afterward he sent me a copy of what he had taken down in shorthand during those two hours. I asked him not to publish it, but to leave it to me to complete. (Out of My Life and Thought, tr. Lemke (1990), p. 205-206)

Then from the letter to Dr. Pfister:

Dear Friend, ... what I am sending you is not a revision of your manuscript but something entirely different. You see, when I began revising your text, three things that I had not previously considered became clear. First of all, the information I dictated to you is only partially suitable for children. My university days go beyond the scope of childhood. Secondly, such intimate things should really appear as something that I myself am telling. Thirdly, for children, a moral conclusion would be necessary.

Thus, these pages would be a marvelous introduction to the excerpts from my jungle book. When I read the text aloud to my father, he greatly enjoyed it. I hope you are satisfied too.

Send me the galleys of both my memoirs and the excerpts from the book!! Without fail. And send me back the manuscript of my memoirs. I want to save it for my child. (Letter "To the Reverend Dr. Oskar Pfister, Zurich" dated 27 September 1922; in Albert Schweitzer, Letters 1905-1965, ed. Bähr [1987], tr. Neugroschel [1992], p. 67-68)

All that aside, Bentley's book ends far better than it begins, and Schweitzer's death is well told.

Although for Schweitzer, Jesus is the religious master, in Schweitzer's thoroughgoingly rational Christianity of the historical Jesus, Jesus is only a man. This contrasts sharply, of course, with Catholic Christianity's Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, born in a stable in Bethlehem, as in the story below from the time when the Christian religion was outlawed in Japan. But in both there is what Schweitzer called "the spirit of Christ".

Christmas and the Hidden Christians

[In Nagasaki the cowherd Moriyama] spoke enthusiastically about his Christian ancestors during the persecutions. They would meet in the Moriyama cowshed on Christmas night, which they called Natara, [which is] an example of the strange words that had evolved among these Hidden Christians, words found in no Japanese dictionary. The words were Latin or Portuguese in origin, but their pronunciations had changed over three centuries of oral tradition.

Before Christmas Eve ... the stalls and the shed would be cleaned ... The highlight of the night would be one of the elders retelling the story of Mary and Joseph, who were refused lodging and roamed in the winter darkness until they found a shelter for farm animals. The telling of the story made Christmas happen again, giving the Christians courage to go on through another year of danger [of being discovered by the police. During the 250 years when Christianity was outlawed in Japan, there could be neither public worship, churches nor priests].

[Moriyama invited his young border] to midnight Mass. "But I am not a Christian", answered Nagai. "That doesn't matter", replied [Moriyama]. "The shepherds and Magi who came to the stable were not either. But when they saw him, they were able to believe. You can never believe if don't come to church and pray." (Paul Glynn, A Song for Nagasaki: the story of Takashi Nagai, scientist, convert, and survivor of the atomic bomb (1988), ix)

[Darkness and Light]

There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition. (Pascal, Pensées vii, 430. These words became decisive for Nagai)

The light of Bethlehem which the shepherds first saw is the light of hope despite the mystery of evil present in the world. This hope is rekindled each year at Christmas. "The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not extinguished it" (John 1.5) if we ourselves do not.

Catholic Christians believe that so great is God's love for mankind that he chose to share in our humanity not as an earthly king but as a suffering servant. The baby in the manger looks forwards towards the grown man on the crucifix as seemingly helpless as itself, but also to his resurrection, to the forgiveness of sins, and life everlasting in the kingdom of God for all who do God's will, which is to love one another as he taught us.

Homily, Christmas Eve, Pope Francis I

The mystery of Christmas, which is light and joy ... has a taste of sadness, inasmuch as love is not accepted ... Such was the case with Joseph and Mary, who met with closed doors, and placed Jesus in a manger ... Yet Christmas has above all a taste of hope because, for all the darkness in our lives, God's light shines forth ... with his tenderness, by being born poor and frail in our midst ... He is born in Bethlehem, which means "house of bread". In this way, he seems to tell us that he is born as bread for us ... There is a straight line between the manger and the cross where Jesus will become bread that is broken. It is the straight line of love ... that brings light to our lives and peace to our hearts.

Pope Francis carries a statue of the baby Jesus during Mass on Christmas Eve 2016 marking the birth of Jesus Christ, Vatican, Saint Peter's Basilica. (Original photograph by Andreas Solaro), 24 KB

It is a night of joy, because henceforth and for ever ... [God] is not far off. We need not search for him in the heavens or in mystical notions. He is close at hand. He became man and he will never withdraw from our humanity ... In the Child given to us, the love of God is made visible. That night, the shepherds understood this. They were among the marginalized of those times.* Yet no one is marginalized in the sight of God ... Tonight, may we too approach him with trust, starting from all those things that make us feel marginalized, from our limitations and our sins.

Tonight ... Let us draw close to God who draws close to us. Let us pause to gaze upon the crib, and relive in our imagination the birth of Jesus ... to rediscover in the simplicity of the God-child, peace, joy and the meaning of life. (Pope Francis, Homily of Christmas Eve, 2016. Photograph by Andreas Solaro)

The gift at Christmas is the tender love of the infant Jesus in the grotto of the manger, a love of utter meekness and closeness that does not overwhelm us with God's glory but, as a Child, lets itself be loved by us, that says to us "God loves you; for your sake he became man. You are no longer alone" (Pope Francis, Midnight Mass, Vatican Basilica, 24 December 2019, paraphrased).

* "Their state of life, and the places they had to stay, prevented them from observing all the ritual prescriptions of religious purification; as a result, they were considered unclean." (Pope Francis, Christmas Eve, 2017)

"And other sheep have I, which are not of this fold" (John 10.16)

Catholic Christianity -- the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Lord's Real Presence in the Sacrament -- is very far away from Albert Schweitzer's understanding of who Jesus was, but Jesus is why both Schweitzer and Takashi Nagai are called Christians. Our Lord through his teaching of love indelibly marked both their lives.

"... where hope is born, persons regain their dignity," Pope Francis has said. That is the hope that is born at Christmas.

Site copyright © September 1998. Send Internet mail to Robert [Wesley] Angelo. Last revised: 24 December 2018 : 2018-12-24 (Original revision 31 December 2012, then 31 December 2016 and 27 December 2017)

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