Are you weary of the daily news of terror, of cities under siege, of the Trumped-up din of politics run amok? Then come to Bethlehem to seek clarity in the chaos.
The Nativity account of the Gospel according to Saint Luke has saved me this Christmas. Or at least it has saved Christmas for me. My 22nd consecutive Christmas in prison has been the most challenging, has felt the most empty, the most outwardly dismal, and devoid of any signs that it really is Christmas.
I think the primary reason for that might be the Draconian ban on Christmas cards that took effect this year. Usually at this time of year – at least in the six years that I have been writing for These Stone Walls – this cell of iron and bare concrete becomes filled with color, with icons and meaning. TSW readers were great at decorating our cell for Christmas.
This year, the pink slips announcing rejected mail because cards are no longer permitted outnumbered the heroic attempts to scan and send some cards on plain paper. What should be a joyous daily mail call filled with the Christmas greetings of friends and loved ones turned into a gloomy affair as the pink slips announced that all these cards were stamped “Return to Sender.” Scrooge at his Dickens-inspired worst could not have made this Christmas look more barren.
It’s been a little easier for our friend, Pornchai-Max. He works for the prison Recreation Department which hosted the annual Christmas gatherings each day last week for the various units in this prison and the family members of the 1,500 men who live in them. Pornchai and his team decorated the huge gymnasium to look like a Christmas wonderland, and visits took place there last week instead of the usual sanitized and heavily guarded visiting area. The Prisoner Recreation Fund provides a light lunch, music, and extended visiting time for families at Christmas, and it’s very nice.
There is also a family puppet show featuring the three Magi of Saint Matthew’s Nativity account. Pornchai got the inspiration for it from one of my Christmas posts, “Upon a Midnight Not So Clear, Some Wise Men from the East Appear.” Last year, one of the Magi puppets had a distinct Thai accent. Sitting with the other two in the back of a New York City cab, Pornchai’s Magi puppet stuck its head out the window, and while pointing ahead shouted, “FOLLOW THAT STAR!” As I wrote in a Christmas post last year, one of the visitors remarked, “I knew they were from the East, but was it THAT far East?”
But this year I had to find my own route to Christmas peace. That is actually a very important term that I will get back to below. Delving into the deeper recesses of Saint Luke’s Gospel at These Stone Walls in the last few weeks has resuscitated a real spirit of Christmas. My two Advent posts, “On the Road to Jericho: A Parable for the Year of Mercy,” and “The Advent of the Mother of God” have awakened something stronger, more profound and lasting than the usual trappings of Christmas.
I imagine this is no less of a challenge for all of you who are separated from that peace while saturated by the glitter of commerce, the marketing push of “The Holiday Season,” and the politically correct demand that we call this anything BUT Christmas. It is for you that I write this post.
PATTI LABELLE AND JOHN LEGEND IN A TITLE ROUND
I can’t really tell you exactly how, but I stumbled upon a Christmas special by the cast of Empire on a Wednesday night two weeks before Christmas. It was dubiously called “Taraji and Terrence’s White Hot Holidays.” The musically talented cast of Empire stepped out of its dramatic roles for one of secular TV’s best tributes to Christmas in recent memory. There were television’s usual little snippets of irreverence, but reverence prevailed and it was compelling. I was struck by the unabashed declaration by this gifted African American cast and guests that it is indeed Christmas, a fact for which they offered no politically correct apology. They rocked the airwaves with odes to the birth of Christ, and they were loudly applauded for it.
The audience rose to its feet and cheered after a triumphant rendition of “O Holy Night,” my favorite of the traditional Christmas carols, by guests Patti LaBelle and John Legend. I found myself spontaneously smiling, something I don’t do or see much of in my world of iron and concrete. They drove me out of my own Dicken’s Christmas Carol, and I knew when I heard it that one line from “O Holy Night” would become the title of my Christmas post for These Stone Walls: “A Thrill of Hope! The Weary World Rejoices!”
It’s not the first time a line from that song has inspired a TSW Christmas title. At Christmas, 2012, we posted “In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land.” How ironic might it be if readers found some joy in the Christmas spirit by reading a post from behind prison walls, where you might least expect Christmas hope. But if you’re in the doldrums over the state of the world or the state of Christmas, then give it a try, and share it with someone else who faces Christmas in depression.
SHEPHERDS AND KINGS
In “The Advent of the Mother of God,” I descended into some of the deeper meaning of Saint Luke’s Nativity story proclaimed at Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent. That same account continues in the Mass for the Christmas Vigil and the Midnight Mass. The Proclamation of Christmas in the Roman Martyrology is traditionally chanted or read while kneeling after the Blessing of the Nativity Scene for the Christmas Vigil Mass. It contains some elements from Saint Luke’s Nativity story:
Proclamation of the Birth of Christ
“The twenty-fifth day of December when ages beyond number had run their course from the creation of the world, when God in the beginning created Heaven and Earth, and formed man in His own likeness; when century upon century had passed since the Almighty set his bow in the clouds after the Great Flood, as a sign of covenant and peace; in the twenty-first century since Abraham, our father in faith, came out of Ur of the Chaldees; in the thirteenth century since the People of Israel were led by Moses in the Exodus from Egypt; around a thousand years since David was anointed King; in the sixty-fifth week of the prophecy of Daniel; in the one-hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad; in the year seven hundred and fifty-two since the founding of Rome; in the forty-second year of the reign of Caesar Octavian Augustus, the whole world being at peace,
JESUS CHRIST, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father, desiring to consecrate the world by His most loving presence, was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and when nine months had passed since His conception, was born of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem of Judah, and was made man: The Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh.”
The “whole world being at peace” ascribed to Caesar Augustus is not at all what the Nativity story of Saint Luke means by peace. Caesar’s peace was won by the sword while the Savior and Bringer of Peace wins it by sacrifice. The world of Saint Luke, whose Gospel came into writing fifty to seventy years after the death of Caesar Augustus is a world still dominated by the Emperor. In the imperial Roman cult of the Caesars, New Year’s Day was marked as the birthday of Caesar Augustus on September 23 (which, by the way, is the date Caesar put me in prison). This Caesar, in Saint Luke’s world, is still recognized as the benefactor of the whole world.
For the Hebrew ear first hearing this account among the Greek speaking Jewish diaspora, Saint Luke’s many details still point back to King David as I described in “The Advent of the Mother of God.” After acknowledging the Earthly powers of Caesar Augustus, Saint Luke’s account (2:1-7) proceeds to describe the first witnesses to the Birth of the Messiah.
And they are mere shepherds. Again to the Hebrew ear this is another echo reverberated back to the life of David whose own humble origin was that of a shepherd as described in the First Book of Samuel (16:1-13). In the voices of angels, Saint Luke proclaims to these shepherds God’s salvific inbreaking into human history:
“For to you is born this day in the City of David [Bethlehem], a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
And these angels go on to describe the humble “shepherd-like” origins of this Savior, origins that parallel King David’s:
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.” (2:12)
And then these angels depart with “a multitude of the Heavenly Host” proclaiming “Glory to God in the Highest, and on Earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)
The “peace” the angels announce is not the peace won by Caesar. What Saint Luke means by “Peace” in this sense is something more personal, more familial, a sense of personal belonging, of being at home where you belong, a peace reminiscent of the reign of David whose Kingship for the Jews was very personal.
The heart of this peace is trust, and it is most clearly reflected in Mary who in Saint Luke’s account “ponders these events” and “kept all these things in her heart.” (Luke 2:51). Luke alludes in this that it was Mary herself who was the source of his account as he renders the facts of the story “just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses” (Luke 1:2).
Peace in the sense conveyed by Saint Luke’s angels is the winning of a human heart and soul, not by any earthly power, but by Christ Himself, and Mary becomes the exemplar of that “winning” in her fiat of trust before God. Luke refers multiple times to the manger, the poverty, the shepherds, the fact that Mary and Joseph can present only a poor family’s sacrifice of two turtle doves (2:24) as Jesus is presented in the Temple at the time of purification.
This peace, Saint Luke challenges, is to be found in spite of all appearances, and thus he places the Spirit of Christmas far above and beyond all the dismal trappings of a shopping mall, or the total lack of trappings in a prison cell. This peace is to be found in the human heart touched by the Word itself in Saint Luke’s account. For me, despite all, it brings a thrill of hope, and the weary world rejoices!
I cannot forego our own Christmas tradition from behind These Stone Walls. A few, weeks ago, writer Ryan MacDonald wrote a fine article about the state of our prison in recent months after he interviewed Pornchai Moontri and a few others in our midst. Its title is “Thomas Merton and Pornchai Moontri; A Prayer for the Year of Mercy,” and from this some readers have shown much in the way of mercy to us. I thank you, and I thank the merciful Lord because of you.
As the sun sets in these December days behind the towering prison wall that has been my view of the outside world for 22 Christmases, it glitters from the spirals of razor wire atop that wall, and for just a moment, it shines with a new light. As the last glimmer of light descends into darkness below that wall at Christmas, I am reminded again of my favorite verse, a poem by Saint John Henry Newman that has become my Christmas tribute to you. I pray it with you now:
“Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on.
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.
I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path; but now
Lead Thou me on.
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will: remember not past years.
So long Thy power hath blest me, sure it still
Will lead me on
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent,
Til the night is gone,
And with the morn those Angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.
We offer this Christmas in prison for you that you put aside all doubt.
May the Peace of Christ reign in your heart.