Twenty Christmas Eves in jail Print
Seeing with Jesus' Eyes
Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009 -- 1:00 AM

Seeing with Jesus' Eyes by Fr. Donald Lange

I spent 20 Christmas Eves in jail. My first such Christmas Eve was in 1971. The Rock County Jail Chaplaincy Committee invited me to help to plan and participate in an ecumenical service at the jail in Janesville. I accepted.

But I waited nervously for Christmas Eve because I had no previous experience with prisoners.

Nervous anticipation

Christmas Eve finally came and I drove anxiously to the Rock County Jail. The beautiful Christmas snowflakes that danced gracefully across my car's windshield failed to calm the nervous butterflies in my stomach.

When I arrived at the jail, I timidly identified myself to the receptionist. I felt tense. So I prayed my favorite prayer, "Help!"

My prayer seemed answered by silence. Then some Jail Chaplaincy Committee members arrived and the butterflies quickly flew away. "Thank you, Jesus, for answering my prayer," I whispered.

A muscular guard led us past a maze of cells to a room that was temporarily converted into our chapel. I fumbled nervously with my notes until another guard led the inmates into our makeshift chapel.

Members of the committee who were regular visitors knew some of the inmates and greeted them warmly. The services were voluntary but most inmates attended.

'Love as he loved'

The service began. Our musicians led us in singing Christmas carols. Carols are poems set to music. They touch us deeply because they express the inexpressible mystery of Christ's Christmas love in a deeper way than prose. Since we knew the songs, we sang them with the sincerity, if not the skill, of the angels who sang in a heavenly way in the shepherd's fields near Bethlehem.

The inmates listened attentively to the proclamation of Scripture and the preaching of Christ's Christmas message of hope and peace. We told them that Christmas is a time of giving gifts. We reminded them that the greatest Christmas present is God's gift of Jesus to us. In John 3:16 it says, "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life."

Jesus died on the cross to redeem us from sin and offer us the gift of heaven. Jesus became like us so we could become like him. He modeled for us how to live a Christ-like life. After his ascension, he sent the Holy Spirit to empower us to love as he loved.

We told the inmates that, like them, Jesus was a prisoner (of Pontius Pilate). But, unlike them, Jesus was innocent. From the cross where he died for our sins, Jesus offered paradise to the repentant thief who confessed his sin. The good thief repented and was saved.

Thanksgiving for blessings

The prisoners joined us in offering prayers for family, friends, and others in need. We praised and thanked God for our blessings.

Our musicians closed the service by leading us in another inspiring Christmas carol. After the service ended, we gave fruit, candy, and cards to inmates. The inmates thanked us for sharing Christmas with them and for the presents that our committee shared with their families.

During the service I was deeply touched by the Bible passage from Matthew 25:36, "I was in prison and you visited me.''

I felt that I was at Bethlehem's stable with fellow shepherds. Mary and Joseph were also there. I felt a bond with inmates, guards, and captive congregation. The prisoners taught me that "there but for God's grace go I." They also helped me to realize that we often live in prisons of violence, selfishness, and sin. Jesus will free us from this prison if we let him.

They don't walk alone

I pray that, when they pay their debt to society, the inmates will continue their journey of faith and become responsible productive citizens. Some days their journey will be difficult. They will need our prayers and support. Like us, they must believe that they don't walk alone. Jesus walks with them and will help them

Last Christmas Eve I enjoyed the privilege of celebrating Mass at Oakhill Correctional Institute near Oregon. In my homily I told the inmates that I knew they would rather be somewhere else. But there was no place I would rather be on Christmas Eve than there, celebrating Mass with them.

I told them to trust in Jesus. He will give them the strength and courage to carry their cross when they become weary or discouraged. Since then, I moved and am presently not able to participate in jail services.

The Christmas Eves that I spent in jail were God's special Christmas gifts to me. I received more than I gave.

Let us pray that prison inmates have a blessed Christmas and celebrate next Christmas Eve with their families. May their Christmas Eves and yours be as blessed as mine.

Fr. Don Lange is a pastor emeritus of the Diocese of Madison.