Every three years, the Revised Common Lectionary takes us to a prison. On the Third Sunday of Advent — a Sunday of Joy, where many churches light a rosy candle and “Joy to the World” resounds in open halls — the Gospel reading finds John the Baptist behind bars, a dark 6 x 8 cell, with only his own voice echoing back against the stone with a chorus of disenchantment: “Jesus, are you the one we’ve been waiting for?”
Is this where Advent leads us? To a prison cell with a condemned man? From openness and freedom into confinement and isolation?
“A prison cell is a good analogy for Advent,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously wrote in 1943. Bonhoeffer spent that Advent as one of 800 inmates in Germany’s Tegel Prison, having been imprisoned in April of that year for his resistance to the Nazi regime. In his cell, he kept an Advent wreath, he lit two candles in honor of his parents and his fiancé, and he recited the story of Jesus’ birth in the gospel of Luke. It all reminded him, “God turns toward the very places from which humans turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn — a prisoner grasps this better than others.”
A few years ago, while serving as a pastor in New York City, I made a visit to the Manhattan Detention Complex — or the White Street Jail, as it’s sometimes called. I was there on a pastoral visit. It was a December Saturday — the day before the first Sunday in Advent.
I wound through the security checks, and ended up in a waiting room with others who were there to visit their loved ones and friends. A young woman walked into the room pushing a stroller. Recognized by another person there for visiting hours, they shared greetings and her acquaintance looked into the stroller and said, “Oh, he’s getting so big!” “Yep, he’s five months now,” his mother said.
That made him about the age of my daughter at the time. The very next day she was being dedicated at our church. Family had traveled for the occasion and our church community had prepared, as all of us anticipated how powerful it would be for a baby to be dedicated during the season we remember that Jesus came like that, for us.
It was all on my mind, when from the waiting room, I entered into a large visiting area where family and friends spread out among institutional tables waiting for those they had come to see. I did my best to look straight ahead and avoid my voyeuristic impulse, but out of the corner of my eye I noticed the woman and her baby. They settled at a table within my view. I waited for my friend and glanced later to see that the baby’s father had come in. I saw him reaching out, cradling his son, asking the mother how he liked to be held, and settling in as his son found the right spot and finally rocked to sleep.
I waited for my friend and on that Advent eve prayed to myself, “Oh, that’s why you came.” The next day we stood before our church in our coordinated colors against the backdrop of candles and greenery. We probably sang “Joy to the World.” But I could not stop thinking about the young prisoner. Advent doesn’t come without me remembering him, because he reminds me of so many more. Those separated from family. Those pacing in a space 6 feet by 8 feet. Those held without the connections or clout for a speedy trial. Those disenchanted. Those who threatened the system or spoke truth to power and now find themselves behind Herod’s bars. Those confined.
Advent takes us to prison because otherwise so many of us would probably stay where colors are coordinated and space is open, with candle light and joy swelling in harmony. But Christ doesn’t come there. Not at first. He comes at first to the confined. The disenchanted. He comes to the backside of an inn, to a family on the run, and parents that must have felt frustrated and afraid as they cradled their baby amidst the tiny shelter they found.
Christmas is for these who grasp Advent better than others. Because Christ doesn’t come for those who are considering how to enter into a spiritual season of waiting. Christ comes for those who already wait.