Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Advent Is Like a Prison Cell

Text: Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:46-55

“I wait for the LORD, my soul waits, and in his word I hope.” —Psalm 130:5

In 1943 German theologian and anti-Nazi dissident, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a letter from Tegel Prison as he prepared to live out the Advent season from a jail cell:

“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.”

Though the analogy of a prison cell and Advent does deviate from traditional thoughts of glowing candles, melodic choirs, and ceremonious church bells, it does evoke images of desperate waiting—a kind of waiting that Bonhoeffer believed would ultimately prepare us for Christ’s coming. He once described how an Altdorfer Nativity scene “in which one sees the holy family with the manger amidst the rubble of collapsed house… is particularly timely.” Amid worldly chaos, the uncertainty of the future, and the consciousness of our own failings and captivity, “even here one can and ought to celebrate Christmas,” because Christ “is coming to rescue us from the prisons of our existence, from anxiety, from guilt, and from loneliness.”

Those many months that Mary had to wait for God’s promise to be fulfilled must’ve been agonizing. The teenage mother’s reputation would surely be scandalized with the birth of an illegitimate child. Joseph was prepared to “divorce her,” not buying the whole “angelic” story that what was conceived in her was “from the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18-19). Mary must have felt confused and misunderstood. Overwhelmed. Distressed. Physically exhausted. Emotionally fatigued. Shamed. Judged. Powerless. Alone.

Mary had a season of waiting. This was her advent, necessitating faith, hope, and trust in the goodness of God’s plan, despite her present circumstances. Life has a way of bringing us all to this place at times—a place where we are completely dependent on the fact that our help must come from beyond ourselves. Whether we are stuck in a toxic work environment, out of a job altogether, feeling purposelessness, being misunderstood or falsely characterized, dealing with a difficult relationship, facing financial hardship, fighting an illness, or praying for the return of a prodigal son or daughter, the waiting is indeed the hardest part.

It’s been said that walking in the will of God might mean waiting as much as it might mean moving forward. Waiting is an exercise of faith that can often reveal something about the condition of our heart. Does the heart trust that God is good and that He is for us, or is it anxious because of unbelief?

In her season of advent, Mary discovered a song in her heart (Luke 1:46-55). Likewise did King David when he felt trapped in a desperate season of waiting (Psalm 40:1-17). What will be your song, Beloved? Long ago, the prophet Isaiah gave us something to sing about:

Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint,
and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary,
and young men shall fall exhausted;
but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
they shall walk and not faint.

May the Lord increase your strength and give you that personal freedom song as you abide in His word, trust in His plan, and wait patiently for His inevitable return.


Heavenly Father, because of your love and faithfulness, we can learn to rejoice in you always even as Paul encouraged the Philippians to do from a cold and lonely prison cell. We don’t have to understand how you will deliver us to already have a song of deliverance in our hearts. Help us to sing that song over and over again as we wait and prepare for your certain coming.

Questions for Reflection and/or Family Discussion:

  1. When do you hate to wait? Why is waiting so hard?
  2. How might you have responded to Mary’s situation?
  3. What picture did David use to describe God’s deliverance in the past? (Psalm 40:1-2)
  4. What specific instructions does this psalm give to God’s people? (Psalm 40:4)
  5. What does God really want from us—especially in seasons of waiting? How can you cultivate more of that (what God wants) this week?

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