Advent Devotional Introduction (part 1)

On Sunday, November 29th and every day until Christmas, a daily reflection will appear to accompany and inspire readers in their own time of preparation.

Highways in the Desert

by Matthew B. Harper


Part 1

“A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Writing about Advent from prison is a difficult thing. Advent is a time of Joy. It is a time of preparation. We are preparing in our hearts, and in our lives, for the coming Christmas celebration. Advent is a time of happy gatherings, frantic shopping, gift giving, a time of celebrations and rejoicing, a time of wonder and merriment. Advent is everything that prison is not. Maybe.

The above verse from the book of the prophet Isaiah is read at the beginning of the service for Morning Prayer. It is not read every day, just every day in Advent. John the Baptist would echo this cry of the prophet as he heralded the coming of Jesus the Christ. But the cry is not just a reminder to us of the coming of the birth of the Christ child, it is also a reminder that in the desert, in the barrenness, God is coming.

My godmother and spiritual director first introduced me to the term ‘desert.’ She used the term to describe those times in my journey when I found it hard to pray, hard to study, and hard to feel connected to God. When I would return to my daily cycles of prayer and study she would rejoice that I had ‘returned from the desert’. But in a very real way, all of prison is a barren desert. Prison is a place most marked not by what it is, but by what it is not. All those things Advent is. Prison isn’t.

It is not a new or unique idea to think of prison as a holy place, a place that is not unlike a church or monastery. But it isn’t. A church is a place that is full both of peace and praise; a location that is designed to lift your eyes, your attention, and your very soul towards God. Prison, in all those respects, is the anti-church. Prison is carefully and deliberately designed to direct you down, to crush your very soul into the ground and direct your gaze even lower. So when I came to prison I expected to find pain, guilt, and despair; I expected to see hate and violence; I expected to see people escaping into drugs, sex, and alcohol. I have seen and encountered all of these things in prison. What I did not expect to find was God, and every moment, of every day, in every place and time, God is here.

Go to Part 2

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