Ah, Mary, what did you feel that very first Christmas, the Babe quietly sleeping in your arms? You knew not what was really unfolding. You must have been so tired from the long journey to Bethlehem on a donkey, ready to give birth. When you arrived, how did you react to learn there was no room for you anywhere, except a humble stable that must have smelled of animals and was no place to deliver a King? What went through your head as shepherds came with mysterious stories about a star and angels? Did your heart stop to hear that they too had been visited by an angel? Did you cast a glance at Papa Joseph at the very word of angels to see what his reaction was? Did his pensive gaze back, make you wonder what was in store?
Fast forward a couple of millennia and Christmas looks somewhat different in places, but not so drastic in others. There are still those who are tired from long, uncomfortable journeys. Many find themselves unwelcomed in society if they are strangers and in need. Sometimes, we have to hunker down in the crap that life hands us. Some days, if we pay attention, angels still appear. More often than we like, we exchange a look with a loved one when we encounter the mystical.
Christmas Eve was powerful for me in a number of places. I am grateful for the annual events of gathering at the homes of two friends–one for tea and Greek pastries and the other for supper prior to mass. This year though there was a bit of a change of routine. The prison ministry I coordinate was invited to attend mass at the federal prison and a few of us said yes this year. After a longer and more uncomfortable journey due to snow-covered, icy roads and low visibility, we arrived at the doors to find the other volunteers anxiously awaiting our safe arrival. I was a bit tired from the stress of being responsible for the precious cargo I was carrying. At one point, I asked my passengers if they thought I was driving in the middle of the highway and they said I was doing just fine. A few minutes later, I did not ask them; I told them I was driving in the middle of the highway. They quickly assured me I was not. A few seconds later I could see the white line was not to the left any longer but that the strip ran under the middle of my car. Sigh. I slowly nudged back into what I hoped was a lane and prayed that our guardian angels would keep us safe.
Once inside, we headed off to the chapel which was beautifully decorated and while this might be an unlikely place for a King to be born, I wondered if not here, where? This place was as much a modern-stable stable as any other host might usher in Jesus. Where would Jesus be born today? In some cardboard box on the East Side in Vancouver? In the poverty of Eastern Congo, surrounded my violence and fear? In the ‘hood in the United States, wrapped in a hoody?
As the men started to trickle in, they were obviously grateful that we had found time on this night to make room for them. Towards the end of the line, my heart leapt. I had not seen one of the men for over 18 months and had often wondered if he was ok. He had been so discouraged when we had last spoken. He had always maintained his innocence, but as a lifer he could not fight the charges. When he had been released after serving his time for his original crime, he had done well for himself, walking a good path and creating a stable life on the outside it seems. Someone else did not like that and apparently invented a story that landed him in prison again. I was happy to see him looking so well and after a beautiful mass, I would reconnect with him.
After Mass though, I would help to hand out donuts to these grown men and watch some of them behave like giddy kids with big eyes when they saw them. “I have not had a donut in years,” one sighed. We had come bearing humble gifts which were received like gold. We had enough so that everyone got at least two. Those who had more could be seen groaning with pleasure, and perhaps a little pain, at devouring the treats. Some of the guys thanked us and a few perhaps were there only for the goodies, taking one and heading back to the units as soon as they could. One of them asked if he could bring back one to a guy who did not come down. I sensed his sincerity and responded that he could not take any food beyond the chapel door, but then whispered that I had not heard his question. He looked at me, puzzled. Another one of the guys laughed and looked at him and gave him more explicit guidance as I turned away, praying he would not get in trouble if he was truly being kind. Like a poor shepherd, he would perhaps bring a gift of all he had to someone else in need.
When my donut duty was done, I heard the carols starting in the chapel, but I instead turned towards the man I had not seen in over a year. I had a message for him. I had thought of him often because he had been healing to me with words that he delivered that I believe came straight from God and I wanted to let him know that. He received my gratitude with joy and reached out his hand to shake mine. I am sure that prisoners do not hear thank you often during their stay. How can they be a blessing to someone? This man had been though for me. I realized that I had repaid my gift in full by my simple words.
I also told him that I had been praying for him on and off, knowing full well he did not believe. He looked at me, and shook his head, “It is not so much that I do not believe; it’s more that I am just still really angry at God.” He updated me that the charges had been dropped but as a lifer, he was not immediately released and still did not know when–or if–he might get out. Justice seemed far away and I prayed that Jesus might come to this man. The world still in not at peace and Hope is desperately struggling in certain hearts.
Was Mary merry that starry Christmas eve? Does the Trinity still look down today and know how much the world needs a Saviour? Can we spot the angels that are amongst us in the oddest of places? Can we shine like the Bethlehem Star in the darkest of places? I pray yes!
Merry Christmas to all.