12/23/2013 11:50 am ET Updated Feb 22, 2014

Singing Carols to Jesus in Prison

I was sitting in the visiting room at a prison in downstate Illinois on a bitingly cold December day. The room is as stark as you'd expect: bare linoleum floor, plain white walls, a series of cubicles. Visitors sit across from inmates, separated by glass.

I had come to see the man who had murdered my sister, her husband and their baby years ago. He killed them at the beginning of Holy Week, a time that marks death and resurrection. Our visit took place during Advent, a time that awaits a birth. He had apologized; I was there to try to reconcile.

With Christmas approaching, I asked him what that day would be like for him. Would there be anything special to mark the day?

No, he replied, except that the food might be nicer than usual, turkey and dressing, maybe. He shook his head over the guards who had searched the cells of all the prisoners, in case they were making bootleg liquor to celebrate the upcoming holiday. "It shows how little they understand us," he said, referring to the guards. "Christmas isn't like that for us. It's just another day."

What can I do, I wondered, to help it be more than just another day for him? I had no present to give him; I could not bring food, or string up twinkling lights in his cell. Then it struck me: I could give him a song, an Advent carol.

I started to sing:

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

As I sang, his face softened; his eyes looked back in wonder, as if he'd seen a rose blooming in the snow. The voices of visitors quieted down as the song floated out into the visiting room:

O come, Thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!

I will sing that carol again someday, I know; I will hear it again in years to come. But it will never mean more to me than it did in that prison: I was singing to Jesus.

The Gospel of John tells us that this Jesus, whose birth we celebrate, "was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him." (John 1:10)

He came lowly, a child in a stable, born to parents forced to flee to safety across a nation's borders when Herod's murderous bloodshed began. He grew up in a humble town, practiced a quiet trade. He traveled and taught with ordinary people -- fishermen and the like. How was the world to know him, the Son of God? How would we recognize him today?

Jesus says in Matthew 25: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was a prisoner and you visited me." Look for me among the least of these, Jesus says; that is where you will find me.

How will we know Jesus this Christmas season, see him in the world around us? Not in a plastic doll cuffed to a creche or an image stamped on a holiday card, but in living, breathing human beings made in the very image of God: the poor, the stranger, the infirm, prisoners. Jesus tells us we encounter him in actions: feeding, welcoming, caring, visiting. It can be demanding and messy; it can take us into dark places; it puts us face to face, sometimes, with aching need.

Jesus did not shrink from us, from our messiness and darkness and need. The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth. He comes, even to that prison, where an Advent carol filled the air, about captives and mourning and lonely exile, and the promise of God with us.