Christmas in Prison

Photo Credit: Mary of Nazareth, Ignatius Press Films
Photo Credit: Mary of Nazareth, Ignatius Press Films

“Would you want to be born in a prison?”
The question was pretty direct, and somehow our Christmas conversation had steered into uncharted territory.  But it was exactly the kind of question I had been hoping for.
Since the beginning of December, I have been meeting with small groups of Agassiz residents to talk about Christmas. It doesn’t take much imagination to realize that Christmas in a jail is not going to be the same as Christmas in your living room. There is no fireplace, no Christmas pudding, no pretty packages, no warm candlelight glow, no family. Christmas looks pretty bleak.
Facing me are 10 young teens trying to put the Christmas story together.  They are in jail for good reason.  One is an auto thief, one traffics drugs, several are here for assault.  Robbery, impersonation, breaching court orders; even second degree murder.  It is all here in this room.
Several of them know the story, and with a little help they can identify Mary and Joseph, Bethlehem, and the three Wise Men.  But what do all these details mean, beyond a sentimental portrayal  of the first Christmas?
So I start to explain that the eternal and omnipotent God did something unimaginable. God could have chosen to be born in a castle, to appear with power and glory, to settle into the lap of luxury, to visit the greatest city in the world. But that’s not what we got. Instead, God appeared in rural Bethlehem with a teenage mom, in a barn that stank with manure. God could have had the best, but instead God chose the worst.
To get the discussion going, I ask them where God might appear today if Jesus were to be born in 2014.  Where are the places of need, the places of poverty, the forgotten places, the rough places?
I wait anxiously.
Suddenly, one guy says a broken home.
Another shouts out Afghanistan.
Someone from Winnipeg says Jarvis and Main.
And the guy beside me says Agassiz.
The perfect answer. Then another resident asks, “Would you want to be born in a prison?”  And the answer, of course, is no. No one would. Except God.
Christmas is the celebration of the Incarnation. It means that God became flesh at the place of our greatest need. God does not require perfection or respectability. God simply requires our need — and is ready to be born at any moment in the heart of all who call out for help.
Your Christmas might include presents and family and carols. But it won’t be Christmas until it includes the birth of Christ in the place of your greatest need. In prison or out.
Norman Collier is the Chaplain at Agassiz Youth Centre

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