Advent imagery is very strong on release of prisoners.
One example is in a hymn called Hark the Glad Sound, which we sang at worship in the sanctuary at Shepherd of the Valley in Apple Valley, Minn., over the weekend.
He comes the prisoners to release
In Satan’s bondage held
The gates of brass before him burst
The iron fetters yield.
Such imagery is scarcely surprising, when one considers the source. It comes right out of the prophet Isaiah, who sought to offer a prophetic word of encouragement to Israelites exiled in Babylon.
But in what sense are people today prisoners in need of release? The anwer turns, of course, on how one understands the reality of sin.
During the Reformation, Luther and Erasmus had a lively debate about what sin does to the concept of free will. Luther argued that sin throws the will into bondage. Erasmus thought that view was too extreme and discounts the degree to which, despite sin, humans are still made in God's image.
Reflecting on the concept of captivity from the comfort of a comfortable suburban home is a rather odd experience. Though I live far from any literal prison, I see four possibilities:
• Literally in prison, but spiritually free
• Literally in prison, and also spiritually in bondage
• Literally free (not in prison), but spiritually in bondage
• Literally and figuratively free
Given these logical possibilities, it makes sense that St. Paul was such a formative explicator of the concept of spiritual freedom. For Paul, after all, spend considerable time in a literal prison cell.