On the mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Dec 16, 2022

While imprisoned at Flossenbürg concentration camp for his role in an attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote these words while reflecting in his journal on the season of Advent:

“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.”

One waits.

I wonder—how many of us like to wait? If you’re like me, watching the last few seconds tick off the microwave is agony. My three-year-old recently asked me how much longer it was until his next birthday. I said: “Eleven and a half months, bud.” (You might have thought I had told him that the world was coming to an end). Shortly after that exchange, we went home to see some presents from out-of-town family and friends waiting under our Christmas tree. And I know those presents “waiting” to be opened are a kind of low-grade torture for him.

Usually we do whatever we can to avoid waiting. We may distract ourselves with an interesting diversion, or do some work toward an unrelated task, or maybe even try to find ways to shorten the duration of our wait. But whatever it is, it’s like we can’t stand to wait for even a second. It’s just too hard.

Now, think about a situation where facing the wait is unavoidable. Or, where the little you can do is a “this or that,” an “ultimately negligible thing.” I confess, when I first read this, the comparison between Advent and a prison seemed difficult—even stark. It evokes a kind of powerless that is the antithesis of all our popular cultural ideologies—on the right and the left. But for Bonhoeffer, this particular type of “Advent waiting” is deeply healing for all of us—because, in Bonhoeffer’s view, this Advent waiting expresses the tension that is at the heart of all our lives.

Through Advent, we learn how to live in two concurrent realities: We have already been delivered. And yet, our deliverance is still to come.

The “still to come” is the hard part. That’s the powerlessness. That’s the waiting. But the “already been delivered” is a door “opened from the outside.” According to Bonhoeffer, to be compelled to wait while knowing that the door not only can be opened from the outside, but will be opened from the outside, offers Christians a great gift. The term that sometimes gets used for this gift is surrender—waiting as “surrender.” But Bonhoeffer called this gift radical freedom. Because, as Bonhoeffer put it, this waiting sets us free from our captivity to ourselves. It releases us from “thinking only of [ourselves], from being the center of my world, from hate, by which I despise God’s creation. It means to be for the other: the persons for others. Only God’s truth can enable me to see the other as he really is.”

May the same be true of us—that we, in waiting, did not distract ourselves from the waiting through work or pleasure—but allowed the wait to set us free from ourselves, and be persons for others.