I’ll be in prison tomorrow – with the inmates at HMP Whitemoor celebrating Christmas with a great deal of joy and gusto as I have before. It makes what Christ came for very real. When you’re in gaol on a long sentence then someone who doesn’t stop loving you no matter what you’ve done; someone who cares enough to come and visit; someone who can forgive; someone who can justify; someone who can help; someone who can set you free – that someone can be very precious indeed.
And are we so very different from our companions in prison? The picture above shows a letter written by my 3-greats grandfather Charles in 1809. I’ll take a copy in to show them. Look at the unusual address: “Middlesex Side, 6 Left”. Charles was a widower, living in reduced but honest circumstances as a “dealer in marine stores” – more or less what we’d call a rag and bone man now, but with a small shop not a barrow. (“Marine stores” included old rope…) But he’d fallen into debt, perhaps arrears with his landlady, and in those days there was no bankruptcy available for folk like him. So he was put in the Fleet Prison, the side for prisoners from Middlesex north of the river, until he could pay the debt off. And had to pay for his keep. But couldn’t ply his trade from there. There was no way out unless you could find someone to help. But that usually cost money too, so here he is trying his luck with someone he thought might help him without it. Gratis. A saviour.
Now the story didn’t end in tragedy. The law has changed so he could at least come out and earn enough to pay his way back into freedom if he got the help to do it, and somebody must have helped. And so the family began the long climb back to financial stability, but it took generations. I was the first to stay at school longer than the leaving age. This isn’t far off history, it’s my story too.
And perhaps its yours in one way or another. Who amongst us does not reach out for love, contact, forgiveness, justification, help, setting free? For whom amongst us did the Christ Child not come?