ONE of the highlights during my six years ministering as a prison chaplain was the annual carol service in the chapel. It was an ecumenical affair, shared with my Roman Catholic and Free Church colleagues, and with prison residents from various Christian traditions (and none), as well as community guests from churches near by.
The format resembled many found in churches during the festive season: the customary collection of readings from the nativity accounts of St Luke’s Gospel, and carols that would be familiar from primary school. Slightly self-indulgently (because of my love of Johannine incarnational theology), we would always have John 1.1-14 as the fourth and final reading.
I was aware that, for many residents, the nativity may have been little more than a vague memory from school festive events in childhood. So, throughout Advent each year, a weekly study group would look in turn at each of the four readings, by way of preparation for Christmas.
In each session, we would co-create a reflection to follow each reading, that spoke about the meaning of the nativity for them, in that place — a prison — and at that time, more than 2000 years after the birth of Christ. Feelings of homesickness would be expressed, alongside regret for past actions and general frustrations at being in such a place at Christmastime. Through all this came a reflective expression of faith that — despite all the difficulties they had experienced previously, and those facing them in the future — God would be close; this they knew, because of the coming of Jesus.
During the carol service, each reflection would be read aloud after the relevant lesson by a member of the Advent group. In their own voice, their lived experience was related to the story of a family gripped in an unfair system, separated from their loved ones, and caught in unfavourable circumstances. Many community guests would comment on how the juxtaposition between the two worlds (incarceration and incarnation), described from the heart by the reader, was deeply moving, and added a depth to their own Christmas reflections.
It was always a privilege to accompany the men I served on this Advent journey. The way in which they brought the incarnation to life was both humbling and inspiring. In the service, as we concluded the reflections, the reader declare “Emmanuel!” and the worshippers would respond, with gusto, “God is with us!” (with a pronounced emphasis on the “is”).
LAST year, after a colleague expressed reluctance to use the fourth reading, I began to question whether John’s Prologue might be theologically too “highbrow” for this context, and came to the conclusion that it was for the men themselves to decide. At the penultimate Advent meeting, the group spent their time looking at the reading, and I asked them, “Do we want this in the carol service?”, I suggested that it might be thought too “philosophical” or “theological”.
After reading the passage, I let them think about the task in hand, but, immediately, one of the group declared “No, we’ve definitely got to have this [reading],” and others nodded vigorously. I gave some background to the reading, and pointed out its deliberate scriptural resonances with the opening of Genesis and God’s creative work of bringing the world into existence.
When I asked them which parts of the reading appealed to them, they identified “the power to become children of God”; “in the flesh”; and “the light shines in the darkness.” One participant said “I just love ‘the Word’ bit.” I explained that the Greek word logos — translated in our Bibles as “Word” — also meant “logic, meaning, or purpose”, and described how the reading posits that everything (including us) that has being, and has come into existence, has done so through what we see embodied in Jesus. At this, one participant from the south of England smiled, nodded his head, and declared — in appreciation, if with conflicted understanding — “That’s proper mad, that is!”
The Service of Nine Lessons and Carols introduces the Prologue to St John’s Gospel in terms of the unfolding of the great “mystery” of the incarnation. A mystery stretches our comprehension almost to breaking-point. In his poem “Christmas”, John Betjeman twice asks of “this most tremendous tale of all”, “And is it true?”; and I am sure that many of us can relate to the notion — so eloquently expressed by my group member — that the doctrine of the incarnation is “proper mad”.
Yet he, with others on that Advent journey and in the subsequent carol service, experienced something profound: a belief that they are “children of God”. This band of seekers after something to hope in — a group made up of the abandoned, dysfunctional, neglected, abused, marginalised, dangerous, and unloved — had a faith stirred in them: that the one who became the human face of God provides them with a light to shine in their darkness: a light that cannot be overcome.
PRISONS, and those who are held in them (currently 83,000 people), are going through challenging times, as is clear from media reports (News, 2 November). This Christmastide, I invite you to hold close these places and people (including staff) in your prayers. Although there were many harrowing encounters during my time as a priest behind bars, I also frequently experienced the best of days. For it is in such dark places that it is, paradoxically, often easiest to witness the light of God’s love transforming lives, and to rediscover that incarnational truth that “God is with us.”
Far from turkeys, trees, and tinsel, God is at work in the unlikeliest of places (unlikely, that is, if we take as our reference traditional Christmas-card scenes). To recognise this is to realise — of the incarnation, and in the best of ways — “That’s proper mad that is!” Thank God.
The Revd David Kirk Beedon was until recently a prison chaplain, and formerly a parish priest. He is currently completing his doctoral studies on “The Humanising of Incarceration”.