Christmas at Alcatraz

I’m reposting this reflection from December 2009 when Keri and I visited Alcatraz around Christmas time.  -JB

“He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners”(Luke 4).

We visited the famous maximum security prison at Alcatraz last night.  If you’ve never been, here’s the scoop. The prison was active during the 40s, 50s and early 60s before closing due to budget cuts and wear and tear. It was the place where the worst of the worst criminals were sent and housed such famous criminals as Al “Scarface” Capone, “Machine Gun” Kelly and others of the American gangstar era.

The tour was filled with stories of the gray, gloomy life behind bars on a cold, foggy, windy island just off the coast of the bustling life of San Francisco.  When the wind was blowing in the right direction, the inmates could hear the sounds of the free people laughing and enjoying the lives of freedom just 1.5 miles inland.  The sounds of freedom just outside of reach only added to the misery of life behind bars.

The most intriguing part of the tour was hearing the tales of the many brave escape attempts which all ended in failure.  The most famous escape attempt was immortalized in the film Escape From Alcatraz (1979) starring Clint Eastwood. One unmistakable fact that comes through during one’s time on Alcatraz is that human beings have a relentless drive for freedom and will do almost anything and risk everything to achieve it. Saints and criminals alike all have an innate hunger for freedom and will stop at nothing in their pursuit of it.

After spending a couple hours on the cold, windy miserable island in the dark and dreary cell house I couldn’t wait to board the boat and be shipped back to the land of the free where we would soon find ourselves back at our lodging place in the company of friends and sipping hot cider by a warm crackling fire. Ah, the gift of freedom is precious.

As we near the celebration of Christmas I am reminded that at the core of the gospel is the gift of an even more profound kind of freedom offered to us all. The Bible reminds us that we are all born into the prison house of sin and death, and live with a constant craving for the freedom God originally intended us to enjoy.

“But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed” (Gal 3:22-23).

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? (Rom 7:22-24)

Christmas is the celebration of God’s coming to our rescue and providing a pathway to freedom from sin and death. Jesus is the “truth that sets us free.”  God does not abandon us to our own isolated islands of godless existence even though we all are justly accused lawbreakers in God’s eyes. The gospel demonstrates that God’s grace and mercy triumph over justice as God gives us not what we deserve but rather the freedom and forgiveness that leads to our redemption and reconciliation with God.

The escape attempts from Alcatraz were ultimately thwarted every time as the fugitives were swallowed up in the frozen waters of the San Francisco Bay. The scandal of Christmas is that God does not leave sin-stained humanity stranded on an island or demand we swim through icy waters and fight for our freedom. Rather, God sends his Son Jesus from the warm, comfort of the Heaven’s mainland, plunging himself into the cold, freezing waters of the human condition, as the God-in-flesh Christ swims his way out towards us in order to retrieve us.

Christmas is the celebration of God’s swim across the cold waters in order to provide for our freedom. As we know, it would eventually cost Jesus his own life to swim across the Bay of Sin to save us condemned criminals.  As Jesus takes our sentence upon himself we are no longer condemned for our crimes against God. We are declared “not guilty” on account of Christ.

So, let us accept God’s gift of freedom this Christmas, board the boat of salvation and ride it off of this Alcatraz of sin and death and begin our lives afresh in the freedom of God!

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