Christmas Eve in prison is so terrible because a wave of sentimentality passes through the gloomy building. Everyone thinks of his own loved ones, for whom he is longing; everyone suffers because he doesn’t know how they will be celebrating the festival of divine and human love. Recollections of childhood come surging back, almost overwhelming some, especially those who are condemned to death, and who cannot help looking back at their past lives. It is no accident that in prison suicide attempts are particularly numerous on this special day; in our case, however, the most remarkable thing was the sentimental softness which overcame our guards.” This is Philip Yancey's latest blog posting.

The pastor who wrote those words was a leader in the confessing church that boldly opposed Hitler. In his memoir, The Valley of the Shadow, Hanns Lilje tells of his imprisonment in both the Dachau and Buchenwald concentration camps. On that memorable Christmas Eve of 1944, in a moment of “sentimental softness” the SS commandant removed the chains of a violinist awaiting execution and allowed him to play in the large vaulted hall of the prison. 

Lilje paced back and forth in his cell, listening to the beautiful music so different from the normal prison sounds. He recalled the Christmas message he had given the previous year, before his arrest. Allied bombing raids were levelling Berlin, and many families, especially those with children, had left the city. Speaking in his unheated church, he had addressed a motley congregation of senior citizens who had nowhere else to go. He chose a passage from Isaiah 9: “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.”

Jesus Mafa

While preparing his sermon, Lilje had reminisced about childhood Christmases, when he would walk the streets with his playmates, excitedly peering into homes at the brightly lit Christmas trees inside. During wartime, however, all windows were darkened under strict blackout rules. As a pastor, what light could he possibly offer in such dark and difficult times? And now, a year later, what light could he even imagine, waiting in a darkened cell for his own death sentence to be carried out?

*ARTWORK CAPTION: JESUS MAFA The birth of Jesus with shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=48387 [retrieved December 19, 2023].

Here's THE FULL BLOG POST by Philip Yancey:

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