Door 16: The News in Prison

By Jan Richardson

The News in Prison © Jan L. Richardson

The third Sunday of Advent gives us Matthew 11.2-11 for our Gospel reading. In pondering this passage, I keep coming back to the first words of the opening verse:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…

John in prison, thrown there by Herod because he dared tell the king that it was unlawful for him to have married his brother’s wife.

John, locust-and-honey-eating prophet of the wilderness, confined to a cell.

John the way-maker, his own way ending in captivity and, shortly, a gruesome death.

But there, from behind his bars, John hears what Jesus is doing. I keep wondering what it must have been like for John, imprisoned, to receive word of the Messiah, the one for whom John had made a way. I wonder what wedge of hope, freedom, possibility the news must have stirred in John. I suspect he well knew he would never leave his physical captivity, but when this preparer of Jesus’ path receives word of what the Messiah is up to…what chains must have fallen away, what light must have gathered there in his cell?

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…

So today I find myself thinking about the word of Christ that comes to those in captivity. I think of how in recent months I’ve felt drawn to pray for those who live in various kinds of bondage in body and/or soul: those in prison, those who have been kidnapped, those living with addictions that have bent and broken them. I think of, and pray for, those who live within systems of oppression and those who create their own systems and situations that rob them of power. I think of those who live in ostensible freedom but who, for reasons of fear or ignorance or seeming convenience or who knows what else, have given their power away little by little, in such small increments that they (we) hardly notice it until it’s nearly gone. In John’s company today, I find myself wondering where those prayers might lead me, what path they might be preparing.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…

In the space of lectio divina, today’s Advent Gospel also invites me to ponder whether there are any places of bondage within myself, any part of my being that lives with less freedom, less fullness than God intends. I think of occasions when I’ve struggled within an institutional system, or a relationship in which I gave too much power to the other person, or times in my life when things got so complicated that fatigue set in, and I allowed it to consume energy that would have been better spent figuring a way out of the complications.

I don’t beat myself up (anymore) (usually) about those occasions when I haven’t lived as fully as hindsight might have wished. Berating ourselves and giving power to regret is another form of bondage, and I’m not sorry for the wisdom I wrested from those times. It helps keep my vision clear as I continue down the path, and it increases the chances that I’ll recognize more quickly when I’m giving up some form of power that God means for me to keep.

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing…

On this Advent day, is there any place of unfreedom within you? Is there any part of your soul, your spirit, your mind that lives in confinement? To what, or to whom, are you giving power and control these days? Why?

What news of Christ, what word of hope, is God offering in that place of confinement? What is one tiny step that would lead to greater freedom?

How are you called to enter into the places where others live in bondage and captivity, and to speak news of liberation in those places?

The design for today’s Advent door drew inspiration in part from a quilt made by one of the amazing quilters of Gee’s Bend. A community of African-American women living in a rural enclave of Alabama, they have, over the course of generations, created vividly unique quilt forms that in recent years have drawn international attention and major exhibitions. Making today’s door while I pondered John in prison, I thought also of these women who, in their bones and in their collective memory, know about bondage and freedom, about making a way out of no way, about the power that the good news brings.

When John heard…

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