“O come, O come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” I am going through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy each Wednesday on this blog, and have come to the one work of mercy that I truly have no direct experience with (it was bound to happen). Namely, to ‘ransom the captive’.
Well, no experience of it in its direct literal sense, anyhow. Historically it seems to date in this formulation from earlier legal and social systems when people needed to be bought out of slavery or other related forms of imprisonment and bondage. While human slavery still exists, those working in the field of human trafficking have cautioned against directly intervening in this way, as it actually just fuels the market for those engaged in the modern slave trade.
In modern times this work of mercy is sometimes updated to ‘visit those in prison.’ Well, that’s fine… if you can. Personally I have spent my entire adult life pretty much in Combermere Ontario where there are no prisons anywhere nearby. And one cannot just waltz into a prison to visit the prisoners, either. The modern jail system is a complex bureaucracy; there are procedures to go through.
Now, there are those who are called to do prison ministry of some sort or another, and all I can do is take my hat off to such people—it is a great work of mercy indeed, to extend a helping hand to those who are in such straits. But if any such people are reading this blog, they know an awful lot more about all that than I do, since it is simply outside of my experience and (barring a dramatic change in venue in my life) will continue to be so. And if anyone reading this blog is feeling called to engage in prison ministry, then you’d best be talking to those who know how to go about it, i.e. ‘not me!’
When I started this series I was determined to not go in a metaphorical direction with any of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry means putting a plate of actual food in front of an actual hungry person. But here, since my own experience is nil in the matter and in fact it is a pretty specialized type of ministry, I would like to reflect on some of the extended senses of this ransoming and this captivity.
The truth is, it is a very important business, this ransoming of captives. God came, as our beloved Advent hymn tells us, precisely as ‘redeemer’, as ransom for the nations. The human condition absent God’s redemption is precisely imprisonment—we are all prisoners of our own guilt and sin, and ‘liberation’ is the great work of God on our behalf.
We must not despise and condemn those who have spent time in prison, as we are sadly wont to do in our culture. Yes, we have to have a legal system, and people who commit serious crimes must be jailed. Of course. But there is no ‘us and them’ about this, like people who have done time in prison are some lower type of humanity to be viewed with scorn or suspicion upon their release.
We are all ‘criminals’, in the deeper sense of the matter. All locked into whatever our patterns of sin and compulsion are, until the Redeemer ransoms us. The whole mystery of Christmas, so soon upon us, is about this, not about fluffy snow (and a good thing for that, this year) or reindeer or bags of presents or… well, whatever the secular culture thinks it’s about.
It’s about God coming to liberate His people, and coming to do this in the strangest way possible—by becoming one of them, by identifying Himself with us, in lowliness, meekness, hiddenness and great compassionate mercy.
If we look around our own lives, we are bound to be able to see a few people in our immediate circle who we can recognize as ‘prisoners’ in one way or another. People in the grip of addictions, or intractable mental illness. People stuck in cycles of destructive behavior that hamper and constrict their lives. People who are simply severely limited by one thing or another, unable to really change their circumstances for reasons good and bad, real and perceived.
Well, go visit those people! Be part of their lives! Be compassionate, as God was and is compassionate to you when He came to be part of your life! Sometimes we really want to fix people, and when we can’t fix them we cut them out of our lives like a wart being excised from our bodies. But so many people cannot be ‘fixed’ that way, and there can be terrible loneliness for such people when person after person walks away from them. That can become a type of imprisonment all of its own.