Christmas Eve night in jail yields a deeper call to reflection than the evenings I was blessed with at home as a child. The inmates write each other cards, color and hang paper stockings, and try to make alcohol, which we deputies try to find. But over the festivities there hangs a desperate sadness.
Jail is the ugliest zoo in the world, and pacing the hallways, outside the bars looking in, I see the lowest that humanity has to offer. Many, literally, look animalistic. Their unkempt hair, grossly infected skin, limps and grimaces of pain from poor decisions imprinted on their bodies, make me look at them as an observer, not as one of the same species. In here it is often them versus us. Not man versus wild, but healthy of body and mind versus the disease of sin made flesh.
The Bible is not exaggerating nor overly dramatic to claim that sin leads to death. It does. I have seen it. Death of the body, mind, and soul is a hopeless mold that, slowly or quickly, films over the once translucent lives of these inmates. Their first time in jail they are terrified and bewildered. “I am not coming back!” they emphatically state as they exit my doors. We deputies, often unknowingly, echo Jesus as we tell them, “Go forth and sin no more.” The next time they enter they weep, but still think they will make it out and away. Sometime between their third and fifth time they grow sullen, defensively hunched against the criticism of their own soul, and try to become callused to stop the pain of reality. About the sixth return to jail they grow accepting of their sins, only occasionally crying when a child or parent dies outside the bars and they are unable to say their last goodbyes. It is a creeping deathly state of the heart, which yields decisions that destroy the body. Most inmates are young because they don’t live to grow old. When they are 30 they look an unhealthy 60, and then many stop returning because they die.
It is in this place I find myself. I work at the end of hope, the place where human effort has failed and only despair is left. Here, buried in concrete and metal, is where Christmas comes. This place of walking dead, this cemetery of the heart, this monument to evil atrocities, even in this place, Christmas comes because life overcame death. Jesus overcame the grave. His blood covers our sins. Oh death, where is thy sting? Death, this vile noisome disease that walks the halls of jail with me, is not powerful enough to stop life. And as midnight strikes, Christmas arrives.
Christmas does not come loudly. It is quiet, gentle calming. This is the one night where inmates and deputies agree not to fight. The lion lies down with the lamb. The proud gang bangers order their troops to be still and the peace officers do not need to use force to ensure no disturbance causes injury and death. It is a sad time, but aptly sad. For who can look at themselves in the quiet and not be sad at their shackled state? And so there is sorrow at night, but joy comes in the mourning.
In this quiet sadness, reflection opens our eyes. We see ourselves and realize we are broken. We grieve the loss of ourselves, knowing we cannot regain what we have lost. We cannot fix ourselves. I cannot grow back a lost hand any more than I can grow back a lost life. If we could, there would be no jail. But there is a jail. There are inmates. This Christmas there are many who will not see their families because of sin. Sin separates us from what is good, from families, friends and God.
But God made a way to be reunited. He who created the Universe was pleased to create a way back to wholeness. And at midnight I walk the hallways of the jail. My inmates quietly go their bunks and ask for a Christmas song. “Something quiet, ma’am. Something to help us sleep.” And so, because it is Christmas, I let the Wexford Carol herald in this peaceful celebration of a life born in separation from society. Surely a manger and a jail have this apartness in common.
So I will leave you with the words of this carol. I know some of my inmate listened to it and thanked Jesus for his birth and confessed their need for his help. If these, the worst of the human race, can do this one thing right, then I invite you to reflect on their Christmas story and do as they did. In this area, you can do no better than these inmates. They received the best present and the only way to life.
“Good people all, this Christmas time, consider well and bear in mind what our good God for us has done in sending his beloved Son. With Mary holy, we should pray, to God with love this Christmas day. In Bethlehem upon that morn, there was a blessed Messiah born.”