I've written before about our prison Christmas services. If you are interested, just click on the prison link below and you can see more about visits there.
This year, Father Joe was there, as usual, to do the Catholic Mass. I sat in the back to listen, as I usually do, to some of the Catholic service. He has a wonderful voice and it was enjoyable listening to the scriptures from Isaiah. I was cheered by the enthusiasm of one of the inmates who sat near the front and gave the usual responses during the liturgy with great enthusasm. His joy might have surprised some of my Evangelical bretheren who assume that memorized responses are necessarily devoid of feeling. Sometimes, no doubut--but not always. At one point Father Joe told the assembled inmates, "I keep coming here every year because it is the highlight of my Christmas." Father Joe is 71 and tends to a very large parish not far away. He looked tired.
The Christmas decor at the prison chapel was relatively tasteful this year. (Such is not always the case--some who have read here before may recall my writing about how one year the drum kit on the platform was festooned with flashing strings of lights.) Men arrived dressed in the usual ugly greenish brown t shirts, some in grey sweatshirts, drab green baggy pants, green coats with the initials of the prison stenciled on the back. No "gay apparel" here.
Some sport long beards and long stringy hair. Some have neat cornrows in their hair. There is the young-looking, smiling black man who told me recently he will be getting out soon. I was surprised to hear he has children. He seems too young for that. He'll be in a halfway house for six months instead of going home. He's grateful for that because he is afraid to "lose focus and slip back." There is a stooped old man, bald, wrinkled, and watched out for by many of the others. I don't know why he's here but I think he's been "inside" for a long time. He has a gentle manner and handshake. Every time I see him I wonder if there is anyone left who hopes for him to come home. There is the skillful guitar player, the singer, the smiling Hispanic guy. Some seem somber but many are smiling broadly and the handshakes and thanks for "sharing your Christmas Day here with us," are real.
Ken preached a sermon that included the story of the man and the birds. The late Paul Harvey didn't know who wrote it, but he shared it every year at Christmas. Here it is:
The Man and the Birds
The man to whom I'm going to introduce you was not a Scrooge. He was a kind decent, mostly good man. Generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn't believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn't make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn't swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man. "I'm truly sorry to distress you," he told his wife, "but I'm not going with you to church this Christmas Eve." He said he'd feel like a hypocrite. That he'd much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them.
And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper.
Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound...then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud...At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window, but when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They'd been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.
Well, he couldn't let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in.
He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched bread crumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the yellow-lighted, wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.
He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. Instead, they scattered in every direction--except into the warm, lighted barn.
And then, he realized that they were afraid of him.
"To them," he reasoned, "I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me. That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how?"
Any move he made tended to frighten them, confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him. "If only I could be a bird," he thought to himself, "and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe, warm...to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear and understand."
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells -- listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow.
The choir sang a medley of Christmas songs and I led the men in a couple more carols. Nothing extraordinary this year, but I found myself wondering why it was that for me, like Father Joe, going to prison is a highlight of Christmas.
I think I finally understand why. There are no crazy schedules to keep, no shopping, no gift giving or receiving, no commercials, no Santa, not much of anything except a rather dingy chapel, Christmas songs, scripture--and the "least of these." For many inmates there is no reason to celebrate and they spend the day in bed. The prison chapel, however, is joyful, peaceful, and bright in an unhappy, negative and dark place. It is Christmas, stripped bare of the trappings and exposed in all its stark, spare, difficult, grace-filled wonder. "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."