We all know Christmas is about an innocent baby born in a manger. But for me, what embodies the spirit of the season this year has to do with a 49-year-old man who will be getting out of prison this week.
I know that doesn’t make you all warm and fuzzy the way your footed pajamas and hot cocoa by the fire does.
I get that.
The birth of our Savior is the greatest story ever told, not to mention it has baby lambs in it too. There’s no way I can compete with that.
Certainly, the man in prison is no Christ-child.
He is an addict.
He is an ordinary Joe. Well, kind of anyway.
What I mean by ordinary is he made a mistake, and how much more ordinary can you get than making mistakes – it seems to be at the essence of our humanity.
I guess what is unique about his mistake, unlike so many of mine, is it landed him in prison.
Thirteen years ago Joe was arrested for buying cocaine for personal use, and was charged and sentenced as a trafficker. His punishment was 20 years with no chance of parole.
Kind of harsh.
The world is full of addicts though. It seems everyone’s addicted to something — drugs, fame, possessions, power and oh, how I could go on. So, Joe is kind of ordinary that way.
Joe is one of six boys whose family grew up next door to a dear friend of mine. Their moms were best friends for 40 years. Even the way my friend described her childhood, that Joe was so much a part of, was kind of ordinary. They carpooled together, teased each other, and played with all the other kids until way past dark.
When he was arrested and given such a severe sentence, my friend said all she heard everyone say was “what a shame.” Two years later, when talking about their beloved friend Joe, old friends would still say “what a shame.” Six years later… “what a shame.”
I guess she got tired of the hopeless sentiment and decided to do something about it.
Joe had already made appeals all the way to the Florida Supreme Court. Each one was denied. The only hope he had was clemency from the Governor to commute the duration of the sentence, which was basically the equivalent of a snowball’s chance in hell.
My friend and his brothers took that chance.
So I guess that’s when the ordinary became extraordinary.
She had worked tirelessly on trying to get him out of prison since 2006.
When I say tirelessly, I assure you she was tired.
She has three kids and didn’t have time to dedicate driving six hours round trip in a day to meet with clemency aides. But she did.
Perhaps as remarkable, she had another friend who had no ties to this family working just as diligently on the case.
As the years passed I saw how much time, effort and prayer, that she and the others involved put into the effort to get Joe out of prison.
Finally after six years, Joe was granted a clemency hearing. Sadly, Joe’s mom passed away less than a month before it would be held. After learning of her death from a prison guard, Joe was not allowed to attend her funeral.
The tragedies of it all, hardly made me think of the word believe.
Yet when his hearing was finally held, I was visiting New York City where over the Macy’s on 34th Street was a huge sign in brilliant white lights that said just that word.
Earlier that morning, I was rushing to get dressed. We were going to meet another couple that traveled with us for breakfast, and then a day of…well, everything. We were in New York City, after all.
At 7:39 a.m. I received a text from my friend back in Florida with the novena prayer to Our Lady of Guadalupe. I was just one of the many prayer warriors she had commissioned to pray on behalf of Joe. His clemency hearing happened to be on the feast day of our Lady of Guadalupe, and it was the last day of our novena.
I told my husband that I wanted to go by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and light a candle for Joe, his family, my friend, and all of the other people who worked so hard to get to this point and yes, for his mama too.
While I was putting on my umpteenth layer of clothing for the clearly we-are-not-in-Florida-anymore cold, my husband pulls out his Ipad.
The clemency hearing was going to be broadcast on one of those boring government channels that no one watches, and my husband (who is clearly not boring) knew where to find it!
Suddenly, I was nervous.
The night before I left for New York, I saw my friend and she was anxious about the upcoming hearing. I told her she had to have faith – she had to believe. I told her that this was about so many more people than Joe. God had a plan for each person that had been affected. However it ended up would be just another part of His plan.
We all talk about letting go and trusting God, but it’s scary as hell when you have to do it. She had done her diligence. I had no doubts about that. Truly, it was time to let it go.
Still, I was scared for her. I knew the chances were slim. This Governor had never commuted a sentence before.
As the clemency hearing played out in real time, I intermittently watched and walked away. I was anxious. I couldn’t imagine the pressure they were all feeling. For the first time ever, I thought how hope is a terrible thing.
I didn’t want to believe. Believing was causing me to pace and cry and fix my eye make up all over again. Believing caused a pit in my stomach that wouldn’t have been there if I could just walk away.
I listened to Joe’s good friend tell the Clemency Board and the Governor about how he visited him in prison and brought his children along on many of those visits. He spoke of the time his daughter was asked to choose the catholic she admired most and she chose Joe – the prisoner.
Apparently she saw Joe embody Christ, not a cocaine addict.
One of Joe’s brothers spoke of how his parents never regretted the time they spent visiting him in prison, sometimes driving as long as 10 hours to see him. He also read a letter from Joe accepting responsibility for his crime and its consequences. He asked for mercy.
Mercy. That is the word Joe used, if you can believe.
My eyes pooled again when my friend’s 80-year-old mother spoke, after her 8-hour commute to the Florida Capital, about the little boy of her best friend. I couldn’t think of a more beautiful way to honor the legacy of their friendship than speaking with a mother’s love on behalf of the friend she had just buried.
She said Joe was a good man who gave in to the temptation of drugs. She testified that indeed he has a good network of friends and family who will support his transition out of prison, but that his mother has an even greater network of friends both on earth and in heaven that would make sure he stays on the right path.
I didn’t think there was much that the Governor could say about that.
The last speaker on Joe’s behalf was the woman who became familiar with the case through my friend. I am just going to quote her because there is no way I could say it better.
“As I understand it, clemency is mercy or favor or grace, and a relief from a just penalty. I am reminded of that definition during Advent as we approach the commemoration of the birth of Christ.”
So, I thought some about the birth of the baby in the manger and all the years and generations of believers who have come and gone since then; all those who brought petitions, pleas and pardon before Him since that momentous night in the stable – THIS was just one more in a flurry of billions which He has heard.
But He heard.
The Governor did what he had never done before. He granted clemency to this man who made a bad a choice, and paid the price for 13 years for that choice. This man, who had lost so much more than his freedom behind bars, will be set free
Joe will be given a second chance – just in time for Christmas.
After turning off the live broadcast, we went to a crowded bagel joint for breakfast and I kept crying tears of joy, gratitude and humility from the goodness of it all. And, the beautiful thing about crying in New York, is no one tries to hug you or ask if you are okay. They just leave you alone to cry salty tears over your toasted bagel with salmon spread.
This just made me love New York all the more.
I went to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and like an eager child, I lit a candle at the first altar I could, just besotted with gratitude. Afterward, I visited the many altars at the beautiful cathedral including the one to our Lady of Guadalupe which was covered in flowers and surrounded by people who had come to honor her feast day.
It was a beautiful sight and how grateful I was to have prayed for her intercession on behalf of this man. The power of prayer is as strong as ever, reminding me that even though I may just be a speck on this universe, I am a speck who God thinks is quite special.
That night I had yet another religious experience – rock and roll.
No, not the Elvis kind –the eighties kind. You know Guns N’ Roses, Whitesnake and Quiet Riot.
We went to see Rock of Ages, the musical where they glorify 80s rock music.
It was almost impossible for me to sit in my seat as the talented cast belted out songs from the decade of my youth. It was both hilarious and irreverent. I enjoyed every single minute of it.
The final song of the production embodied not only the spirit of Christmas, but that of faith.
It was the song by Journey – Don’t stop believin’.
As it filled the theater, with its pleas to hold on to that feeling, I was on my feet and celebrating that feeling of faith that had been renewed in me.
It’s easy to stop believing.
One day you realize there is no Santa Claus. There are no talking snowmen or elves or reindeer.
That magic is gone, and we think that it is okay because it’s childish and silly and there is no room for that in our grown up, real world lives.
But it’s in our adult lives that faith is paramount.
We have to keep believing even when the odds are against us. We have to stay soft and open to the gifts that await. Gifts that have nothing to do with Macy’s, despite the brilliant sign it boasts this time of year.
This Christmas, for the first in such long time, I can say that I believe.
While I have never lost faith in that baby boy born in a manger with the sweet lambs nearby, I did somehow lose the magic of this time of year which has nothing to do with lists and everything to do with faith in the people in my life.
The people who stand by you at your darkest hour, who petition for you, who forgive you, who believe you are worth a second try, who get what it’s like to emulate the life of Christ no matter the time of year, those are the people who make the season magic, merry and bright.
So if you have not found that magic yet, don’t stop believing. I promise it’s out there.
And if you are fortunate to already believe, find a way, no matter what life throws at you, to hold on to that feeling.
Each of you who have taken the time to read, comment and share have added to the magic of my year. May your faith in God, goodness and mankind spread with each kindness you share, so that others may believe. Merry Christmas to you!