Wednesday, December 19, 2012

In Sin and Error Pining: Christmas in an Unholy Land

By Fr. Gordon J. MacRae

Though I grew up on the North Shore of Boston, I lived for several years in Albuquerque, New Mexico. To prepare for Christmas, people in the Old Town district and other neighborhoods would place lit vigil candles in hundreds of small, sand-filled brown paper bags to encircle their homes, line their driveways, and often even adorn their flat adobe roofs. These vigil lights – called “Candelarias” – were displayed throughout the neighborhoods by the thousands, and their collective effect was a beautiful and breathtaking vigil for the birth of Christ. On Christmas Eve, families and friends from all over would crowd into their cars for a solemn drive through Old Town Albuquerque to view the Candelarias.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, even inside this prison, or at least my small corner of it. As the annual bipolar express into Christmas depression commences all around me, the walls of this cell have become covered with Christmas cards sent by TSW readers. The cards are beautiful and a stark contrast to the bleak place they now adorn.

The collective effect has transformed this captive world in sin and error pining into one of expectant hope, and the strangest thing has happened. As Christmas draws nearer, prisoners – few of whom receive many cards and some none at all – keep coming to this cell to look at the growing numbers of faith-filled cards. “How does one person know so many people?” one asked. “No,” another corrected him. “How does one person know so many GOOD people?” Pornchai loves to give tours of our cards, and tells the other prisoners that we have never even met most of the senders. He explains that they are TSW readers who think of us and pray for us – “including you,” Pornchai tells them – as we spend another Christmas here. It reminds me so much of the vigil of the Candelarias. You should take some pride in this, for it was you who provided the lights that draw them...

You can take pride in the fact that many of the cards you have sent to me and to Pornchai now serve a solemn purpose in an unholy land. They are the Candelarias that summon the alienated and alone to the Christ Child.

I’m about to mark my 19th Christmas in such an exile, living in punishment for crimes that never took place. For Pornchai, it’s his 21st Christmas in prison. But one thing is clear. Not all who dwell in this unholy land are without hope for redemption. When Jonathan finally left this prison last year at Christmas, when his daughter was one year old, he handed me a note as he was going out the door. It was one of the nicest Christmas gifts I or any priest could ever receive:
“I will always remember all the ways that I could count on you. You never take anything from anyone, but please take this: You were a better father to some of us in prison than any of our own fathers ever were in freedom.”
I don’t know that what Jonathan wrote was entirely accurate. I have a hard time measuring such things, but I got another note recently that literally knocked me on my . . . umm, priestly posterior. It was from my friend, Alberto Ramos about whom I wrote in “Why You Must Never Give Up Hope for Another Human Being...”  (continued)


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