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  • Betsy Singleton Snyder

In Prison on Christmas Eve

I walked into the church I serve to preach Sunday morning for the final services of Advent, the time of preparation for the coming of Christ. It was also Christmas Eve, which meant our church would begin Christmas Eve Candlelight Communion services by 2 p.m. and continue through midnight. The marathon had begun.

It had turned cold. The crisp air felt good. As I walked in through the front doors of the church, I thought to myself, "I am so happy to be in this place today. I have the best job in the world."

I also wondered if I am a bit nuts.

By the time I got home to my husband and children it was 4:30 p.m. All I had eaten during the day was donut holes sitting around the church from the morning. Someone told me there was pizza, but I just couldn't do pizza on Christmas Eve. I spent an hour and a half with my family until my friend Gayle came by my house to pick me up to go to one more service.

It was my turn to preach the Christmas Eve service at the Department of Community Corrections. Volunteers from other local churches had gotten new clothes for the inmates, a great meal, and a band together.

Once there, Gayle and I set up the styrofoam Advent wreath with the Christ candle in the center. We placed the two, red plastic cups out and poured the grape juice into them. We placed the long loaves of bread on two paper plates, and covered them with paper towels.

It was not lavish. It was plain. Yet, in the harshness of the overhead lights, the little table held more than it appeared..

As the men in yellow jumpsuits filed in to start the service, we stood at the back in a line. We shook hands and said, "Merry Christmas" to one another.

I looked in the face of each man. Some men looked very young, and some were older. Some were young and looked old. Faces tell a story, even when we do not know the full story, likewise, our bodies. The way we hold ourselves may suggest shame, sadness, anger, and fear. One need not be in a prison to see faces, body language, and human stories; however, a place that is bare of trimmings often helps us see one another better, more fully, like the divine showing up in a small town stall to a poor family, rather than crowned at a five-star resort, or presidential palace.

I am the mother of four boys, who are growing up. I see their struggles, their weaknesses, their inability to understand their feelings. I try to pay close attention to what their faces, their eyes, and their bodies tell me too.

As those men walked by me in the line to be seated, I thought, "You are my son."

On a night in which we are confronted with Mary's vulnerable, newborn baby boy, placed on the hay in a feeding trough, I could only think of them as sons, not by biology, but because we are humans, humans struggling in a messy world, humans who need one another, and some light in our darkness.

As the overhead lights went down while we sang "Silent Night," we finally stood in candlelight. Some faces were somber in the low light, some men looked like children; they played with the flame and smiled. Others clinked the candles, held in plastic cups, together as if toasting. Some of the men looked deeply into the light. Others moved the light around, holding it up, as if to see what might be ahead.

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