January 15th, 2021

Christmas in prison

By By AUSTIN FENNELL on December 18, 2020.

(This is a true story that comes from Hans Lilje, a German Lutheran bishop, imprisoned by the Nazis for being a member of the Confessing Church during the Second World War.)
Christmas in prison is terrible. A wave of sentimentality washes through the gloomy building. Everyone is thinking of their loved ones. Recollections return of times with the family. It is no accident that there are more suicides than at other times. Oddly. the guards are overtaken by a sentimental softness. Younger guards, usually quite brutal, behave differently. The evening makes quite an impression on them.
At this time, the Commandant, more humane than most, made some exceptions, and for one prisoner he had his chains removed and his violin returned to him. He was a skilled musician, and the halls were filled with beautiful sounds. Lilje was walking back and forth in his cell looking at the Nativity his children had made for him, and thinking of the last Christmas Eve in the St. John’s church where he had conducted a service. He recalled that he had preached on the Isaiah passage, and then on the gospel, “The people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light…”
Just at that point, the heavy cell door opened and he was led by the guard to the third floor. “Bring the prisoner from #212!” Lilje realized that this was Count X who also had been condemned to death. The Commandant had agreed that Lilje should be allowed to provide him with the Sacrament. The Count had often attended Lilje’s services.The violinist played a chorale. Lilje said to the assembled group, “Tonight we are a congregation, part of the Church of Christ, and we may hear the great Word of Divine promise which is true for us today as always and for who receive it by faith. The Light is allowed to shine upon us also. Let us cling to that promise in the midst of the shadow of death, and let us praise Him for His grace.”
The Count knelt on the stone floor, and Lilje prayed the beautiful old prayer of confession from Thomas à Kempis, the tears running down on the Count’s face. It was a very quiet celebration full of deep confidence in God. “We were prisoners in the power of the Gestapo in Berlin, but the peace of God was real and present like a Hand laid gently upon us.”
The Commandant had allowed all this to happened without permission. The violinist played another chorale.
“The Commandant, deeply moved, shook my hand twice. ‘Thank you. You cannot imagine what you have done for me this evening in my sad and difficult work.’
“I (Lilje) praised from my whole heart that in this building under the shadow of death and in the face of so much trouble and distress, a Christian congregation had assembled to celebrate Christmas. It is possible for the candles and lights to blind our eyes so that we cannot see the essential element of Christmas, but the people who have ‘walked in darkness’ can see it better than those who can only see the lights of the earth. I was immediately taken back to my cell.”
Shortly after Christmas, the Count was sent to a concentration camp. The violinist was killed by the Gestapo before the last days before the collapse. The Commandant was removed from his post as he was too humane. But, says Lilje, “the memory of Christmas Eve in 1944 remains with me, illuminated by the consoling and eternal Light of God.”
Story from “The World’s Christmas” by Olive Wyon.

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