A Prison Cell, Advent, and the Mystery of the Incarnation

“By the way, a prison cell like this is a good analogy for Advent; one waits, hopes, does this or that — ultimately negligible things — the door is locked and can only be opened from the outside.

— Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The year was 1943 and another Advent had come to the Lutheran pastor and theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. It was the first of two Advents that he would spend in custody of Hitler’s Nazi regime, the last two seasons of Advent that he would know.

Bonhoeffer, born in a well-to-do German family—his father a reputable professor of psychology at Breslau University, his mother an accomplished musician and the daughter of a prominent German theologian, and his siblings, a chemist, doctor, and lawyer, each successful in their own right—had slowly been led by the work of the Holy Spirit to understand God more deeply. He struggled with the pride of wanting to live up to the family name and hold a place in the high social circles of German society. But over the course of his young life, Bonhoeffer came to know God not as a God of the rich, powerful, and socially prominent, but as a God of the humble and lowly, the oppressed and marginalized.

Bonhoeffer, eventually arrested by Hitler’s Gestapo after his role—albeit minor—in plots to assassinate Hitler was discovered, was imprisoned. Stripped of all that so often helps us cope, in prison Bonhoeffer had to wrestle with the silence and absence of God. Had to wrestle with his own powerlessness and the fleeting sense of life. It was there that Bonhoeffer wrote the words at the beginning of this post in a letter to a friend, likening Advent to a prison cell in which we are all waiting, longing to be set free.

As I reflect on Bonhoeffer’s words I wonder: are these the words of a man who has grown hopeless? Or, are they the words of one who has been stripped of all pretense, the words of one who has had to face the questions that we so often ignore as we inoculate ourselves with vain and empty things of distraction? In prison Bonhoeffer had nothing left and in that wrestling he writes with a clarity that escapes us — we are all in a prison and the only hope we have is from the outside; we are all longing for our release and deliverance.

But is that true? I would dare say that many of our lives are not lived with this desperate sense of longing to be delivered. If we are honest, many of us carry on about our daily life with little sense of desperation. Many of us try to live moderately comfortable lives so that we don’t have to experience a longing for God, for a better world that is yet to come. We are much too important to see ourselves in such a needy position. We are too busy to pay attention to the deep questions lurking beneath the surface. Our lives are filled with much too noise to hear the haunting silence of human existence. Or maybe, Bonhoeffer names for us what we are too afraid to name: that no job we have, no matter the size of our bank account, no friend or marriage, no addiction or hobby, will give our existence ultimate meaning and hope. Bonhoeffer names the reality that so many of us know but are too afraid to name—that a life apart from God is an ultimately meaningless existence. 

In the same letter to his friend Bonhoeffer writes, “We simply have to wait and wait. The celebration of Advent is possibly only to those troubled in soul, who know themselves to be poor and imperfect, and who look forward to something greater to come.” Advent invites us to wait, to refuse to paper over our longings, our pain, our fears by listening to jolly Christmas music beginning in October, or with shopping, or with a little more spiked eggnog at the holiday party. Advent invites us to turn off the Hallmark Christmas movies where everything always turns out perfect in the end and to instead lean into the deep questions, even though it will be hard and scary and painful.

Advent asks: What parts of our lives are we ignoring? What pain are we hiding? In my experience as a pastor, most of us have prisons somewhere in our lives—in the deep parts of our being—but we do a good job of ignoring them, pretending we are more free than we are. Where are we longing for God’s redemption and salvation? Where is it, in the hidden, forgotten corners of our souls, that we are desperate for God’s healing and reconciliation? Maybe it is an addiction that you can’t shake. Maybe it is a broken relationship with a friend or member of your family. Maybe it is that you feel so often that life is vain and meaningless and you’re scared that there is really nothing on the other side. Maybe it is from the pride that prevents you from admitting your need of God, of friendship, of love and hope.

Advent is a season for us to wrestle with and name our desperation for God; a season in which we name our dependence on the only one who can bring us hope. It is a time when we reflect upon the prisons in which we live, in which we sometimes feel trapped, and to be reminded that Christ has come and Christ will come again.

Bonhoeffer writes that the prison is locked and can only be opened from the outside. But the mystery of Advent — the mystery of the Christian faith — is the mystery of the Incarnation. Christ becomes like one of us, takes on flesh and dwells among us (John 1:14). As the Church Father Gregory of Nazianzen famously wrote of Christ’s becoming flesh for us and for our salvation: “What has not been assumed cannot be healed.” The gospel truth of Advent—the mystery of the Incarnation—is that God doesn’t blow the door down from the outside. Rather, Christ dwells among us, in the prison with us, breaking open the prison door from the inside, confounding all worldly powers and leading us out into the light and life of freedom.

 

*This essay has been adapted from an article I originally published one year ago in the monthly newsletter of the Reformed Church of Port Ewen.

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