This past Christmas Eve was one I will always remember, for in the time frame of five hours I was placed in two very unique settings where the meaning of Christ’s presence among us became very clear.
The first was our 4:00 p.m. service at St. John’s. I sat with my daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren along with hundreds of other families, who had come together to celebrate with joy and excitement God’s gift of his Son, Jesus. We sang traditional carols, heard once again the Christmas message, shared in communion, and enjoyed lovely music, all in a setting of a sanctuary magnificently transformed to reflect the beauty and meaning of the season. I don’t remember a Christmas Eve when every element of the service was put together with such care. I left reluctantly. I wanted to stay forever.
My family disperses on Christmas Eve after church, and so after a quick dinner, I went over to the jail, where I had been given permission to meet one-on-one with some of the inmates on the ground floor. Ground floor is the segregation area of the jail, housing inmates who are on suicide watch, who are in the first stages of detox, and who have been isolated because of behavior issues. In contrast to my past visits when the noise level has risen to distracting levels, there was this night a hushed silence enveloping the entire floor.
Christmas Eve is an emotional time for nearly everyone. For those, who are incarcerated, “Christmas present” is often so painful that it is dismissed and memories of happier times brought to mind – but not always. Many of these men and women have lived in turmoil all their lives and have really never experienced a truly happy Christmas and many more know that they will never go home - that all Christmases to come will be experienced behind stone walls or razor wire.
It is impossible to express what it meant to me to be allowed in – the only visitor that cold night. You’d have to experience it. The men I saw were more than grateful. They couldn’t believe that someone who wasn’t required to be there was there simply to be with them. We talked about the present – how they were doing, their fears, hopes, sometimes despair over the possible resolution of their cases. We talked about past memories, family, and hopes for the future. And we talked about the wondrous gift given over two thousand years ago – to shepherds, wise men, to the world and what that means for their lives today. We laughed, cried in one case, prayed together, and I passed out a wonderful Christmas devotional. But the most important gift they received that night was the real presence of Christ given in the form of someone who simply “showed up”. What they didn’t realize was that what they had given me that night was far greater than the little I was able to give them.
The contrast to the lush beauty of St. John’s was remarkable, but the words kept coming to me, “It’s simply two sides of the same coin.” The coin, of course, represents God’s people – the living body of Christ.
As I have grown older, it has become increasingly clear to me that we are all on a journey – a sacred journey. Our paths take us through many experiences and cross those of many kinds of people. I believe that we are here to learn from everything we experience and to constantly ask the questions, “How will I respond to the gospel message? Where am I called to serve?”
I no longer believe in “them” and “us”. We are all one – the same coin, so to speak. Our experiences may vary greatly, but our paths and destination are sacred. It is my privilege to be able to serve. What a wonderful surprise God had waiting for me – one far better than I would ever have imagined. Where is your path taking you?