“A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes―and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside, is not a bad picture of Advent.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
In case anyone might have missed it, we have entered headlong into the holiday season. Neighborhoods are once again filled with houses adorned with festive lights (ranging from understated to garish), nonstop seasonal advertising assaults the senses, and songs about reindeer, sleigh rides, and snowmen echo in every public space. People run hurriedly from one appointment to another—a holiday party here, a Christmas program there—all while trying to find the perfect gifts for friends and family.
So, with the constant din of crass consumerism ringing in our ears and a list of never-ending tasks stretching out before us, we can be excused for not recognizing that it really isn’t the Christmas season at all, which, technically, begins on Christmas Day and stretches out for 12 days until Epiphany on January 6. Rather, we are in the midst of Advent—a season of waiting and listening on God as He prepares to enter into our world in the form of an infant.
The name “Advent” is derived from the Latin ad venire, meaning “to come.” In earlier times, Advent was a period of prayer and fasting in preparation for the coming Savior. Today, the idea of fasting during the weeks leading up to Christmas seems far removed from common practice, and even the idea of setting aside time for prayer is likely to be brushed aside as impractical in the crush of holiday activity.
Perhaps it is not so surprising that we are hesitant to acknowledge the Advent season. There is a sense of human desperation in Advent—a sense that is likely to crash against the “warm fuzzies” we usually associate with Christmastime, and that challenges the holidays’ “me-first” mentality. But there it is, right in the middle of all the festiveness, reminding us that our sinfulness is the reason the Christ had to come in the first place, and calling us to “prepare the way of the Lord.”
One only need look at some of the more traditional hymns of Advent to see the anguish of God’s people as they wait for the Savior’s coming:
O Come, o come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appears.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel!
Shall come to you, o Israel!
– O Come, O Come, Emannuel
Come, Thou precious Ransom, come,
Only Hope for sinful mortals!
Come, O Savior of the world!
Open are to Thee all portals.
Come, Thy beauty let us see;
Anxiously we wait for Thee.
– Come, Thou Precious Ransom Come
Comfort, comfort, ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover
And her warfare now is over.
– Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People
Such songs are not birthed from the cheery image of our sanitized table-top nativity scene. Rather, they are calls to God for rescue, and the reassuring response from God that he has not forgotten His people. And it is here, in the midst of this darkness that the coming Light shines so brightly.
Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood this darkness. Imprisoned for his role in a failed assassination attempt on Adolph Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote the above words to protégé Eberhard Bethge while at Tegel Prison in Berlin in 1943. From his cell, Bonhoeffer understood, all too well, the need for a Savior—One who would lower Himself, come into the darkness, and free the captives.
While Bonhoeffer would never again celebrate another Christmas outside of prison (he was executed in April of 1945—weeks before Allied troops arrived and liberated prison camps throughout Germany), he was able to cling to God’s promise of Messiah, rejoicing that God had come to save mankind. And while the gates at Tegel remained closed, Bonhoeffer knew that in Jesus’ birth, the gates of Hell had been ripped from their hinges, and the gates of Heaven had been opened to all who call upon Him for their salvation.
So enjoy the yuletide festiveness—watch 50-year-old holiday specials with your kids; rejoice when you find a parking space in the same area code as the shopping mall you are visiting; keep the cursing to a minimum as you search in vain for the bad bulb on your Christmas tree light strand. But do so as a prisoner awaiting release from captivity, and knowing that our freedom is the reason Christ came. Take some time to ponder on God’s redemption, birthed as a baby in a stable over 2,000 years ago, and know that it is for freedom that we have been set free. Don’t miss the quiet comfort of what God has done in the wash of all we “have” to do. The King is coming—prepare your hearts.
There is still time to help provide hope for kids of prisoners this holiday season. Angel Tree provides gifts to children on behalf of their incarcerated parents, and shares with them the Good News of Christ’s coming. To find out how you can help share God’s love with prisoners and their families this Christmas, visit www.angeltree.org.