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7: Christmas

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We had a Mrs. O'Hara, who had three children with us in our cell. She had started to cough up blood and every day she worried about what would happen to her three children when she died. We could offer her no solution, no comfort.

On the morning of Christmas eve we woke up to find her lying quietly with a smile on her face while she looked tenderly at her children. Then she turned towards us and asked us; "Aren't you surprised that I an not worrying today about my children?". We agreed; we had noticed it, but were glad for her sake that she was at peace. She then told us how during the night she had been worrying about her children while she was gazing up at the starry sky through one of the holes of our roof. She wept from fear for her children. Suddenly she heard a voice asking her; "Do you believe in God?" She answered inwardly; "Yen", and the voice then made it clear to her that if she truly believed in God, did she think that God could not take care of her three children, while He did manage to look after the Milky Way? A rush of deep peace and joy entered her heart and whole being, she surrendered all her anxieties into the Hands of God, the Mighty Creator not only of the Milky Way with its millions of solar systems, but of all the galaxies in the Universe. Mrs. O'Hara managed to have her first deep restful sleep since weeks.

We were very glad for her; she was convinced of the Power of God to take care of everything, and the comfort she received from this was spiritual strength.

The eve of Christmas was beginning when one of the wardens came and brought a candle to be our "Christmas tree". We put it on the water barrel in the corner of our cell, and he also provided us with a box of matches so that we could light it. When darkness fell we lit "our tree" and it was amazing how much light that one candle gave out in our dark cell. All our eyes were drawn towards it instead of upwards to look at the starry sky. To me, the cell seemed to have been transformed to a painting from Rembrandt. Here and there the weak light of the bare bulb and the soft radiating light from the candle lit up the faces of some of the people in the cell. Their expressions were pensive and restful. I suddenly realized how about 2000 years ago God chose to be born in a stable like ours, admittedly without ground-water, flies, and a stinking toilet but nevertheless it was a most humble cave inhabited by animals, because there was "no room in the inn" for the Lord of Glory, who has created all and for Whom not a Palace on earth would have sufficed. So He was laid not in a royal cradle, hand carved, inlaid with gold or set with precious stones, but a manger. A manger of course is a Sepulchre in miniature, prefiguring what He was born for, to die and overcome death for Us. God's greatness truly is expressed in His humility, which we see reflected in the care He taken for minute details in His Creation: a Ladybird, a patch of moss, a hard working and, and all the finishing touches we find even in the most common flowers like buttercups or daises.

Suddenly I felt that the Person of Christ had entered our cell and I even knew where He was standing: Not in the middle of the cell, but on the left hand side near the door. Unspeakable Joy and Peace entered my heart and suddenly nothing mattered anymore, neither the rate, ground-water, Japanese, sickness, death, interrogations nor fears, all that was life-giving and truly mattered was to be close to His Presence and to know that He has already conquered evil and death. I did not dare to move nor speak, because I did not want to lose this precious sense of God being "with us". Truly, truly He is Emmanuel. For just a few seconds or minutes, I don't know how long it lasted, I felt a foretaste of Heaven, of Eternity and understood that as Time is "running out", there will be at the end of it no more sickness nor death, nor any of this earthly suffering. When God will be all in all, then to be "with Him" will be to know Infinite Eternal Bliss, to be without Him will be Hell. I understood now His words; "In My Presence is the fullness of Joy". Just as infinity and eternity are of the same source, so Time and Death depend on each other, devour each other. As Time moves on everything decays and even the strongest buildings eventually crumble.

While it was quiet in our cell, we heard people in the cell next to us start singing, "Silent Night, Holy Night." When they finished, our cell took over and when we had finished, the other cell of the men started it. The whole prison Bantjeuj was praising God like the angels for His Good Will towards men shown by giving us His greatest gift, His Son. His Son is the "Peace" of the Father which passeth all understanding, Peace in a Person, the Person of Christ within our soul since He came to be ".with us." It is not the peace which is between people with good will towards each other. It is a much greater gift, a God-given gift.

One of the wardens told us the next day how he had wept when he was approaching for night-duty and heard the voices singing "Silent Night, Holy Night" come out of Bantjeuj. That great big white condemned prison sent up their praises to God in the Highest and there in moon-light it was bathed in beauty. Manure is good for growth and in that condemned prison many souls were drawn upwards to God.

When we woke up the next morning, Christmas Day, we discovered from each other, that almost everyone had felt the Presence of Christ in the cell the evening before. We also knew when lie left our cell, leaving us with a deep gratitude and joyful Hope behind. "In quietness and in confidence shall be your strength, In returning and in rest shall you be saved." Like Noah, all the faithful have shown to us the Way to travel through this life on earth, towards the Kingdom.

While we were talking with each other about this most beautiful Christmas we had ever known, we heard children start sobbing. They were Mrs. O'Hara's three little ones. The eldest boy was about nine years old. She had died and she looked as if she was in a peaceful sleep; her face was relaxed and calm. We were suddenly all in deep grief, forgetting the previous evening. Suddenly the doors were opened with their usual rusty screeching noise and the warden was there with a Japanese officer next to him. The Japanese looked at the woman and the sobbing children and pointed towards their mother, asking what was the matter with her. Before anyone of us could answer him one of the women jumped up and screamed at him; "She is dead! She is dead and it is all your fault, because the water killed her?" She was in her early thirties and she had caught tuberculosis. The Japanese Officer took out a short whip which was stuck in his belt and he raised his arm to whip her. But the woman was beside herself and shouted to him; "Oh whip me, whip me! You are not scared of me, but out there is One of whom you should be scared, that...," now she pointed with her finger upwards "Allah", the Islamic God. He stopped in mid-air, gaped at her and slowly he brought his arm down with the whip. Then he turned on his boots and walked away quickly. We were all dumb-founded. The woman in question, sat down and wept from nerves and emotion. We were all shaken and wondered if there would be a reprisal from the Japanese officer. Sure enough after about ten minutes the warden returned and asked the woman to follow him together with the three children of Mrs. O'Hara. They timidly and dumb with grief followed him while we stayed behind panic stricken. What was happening with them? Were they beaten up? We were getting more and more depressed as time went on! In the meantime the warden and some numbers came to carry the body of Mrs. O'Hara away, and we could only gnaw at our worry. After about two hours to our surprise the woman without the children returned to our cell. Her face was beaming. She then told us that when she was led to the Japanese officer he had asked her whether the children had any family outside, and she had told him that their grandmother was still free and had not yet been put in a camp. To her surprise the Japanese officer then told her that he had decided to allow the children to leave Bantjeuj and to be looked after by their grandmother until the end of the war. He wrote something in Japanese on a piece of paper, signed it and handed it over to her with the words; "give this paper with my signature to the grandmother. This will keep her out of the camps, as I have given my permission to her personally to stay with these three children outside the camps. I want you to bring these children accompanied by the warden to the grandmother and hand them over to her. Then you alone return here."

This is what happened: they set off together in a sado (cart and horse) and when they arrived at the grandmother, she broke the news of her daughter's death to her. What a Christmas present to receive on December the 25th. The grandmother broke down and wept, hugged the children closely and took the official Japanese paper granting her permission to remain outside the camps for the duration of the war.

We moved from utmost despair to incredulous joy. Surely God had proved to Mrs. O'Hara and us that indeed He can take care of three children and can move the heart of a Japanese officer to act as He wishes him to do. Within 12 hours of her death, the children were "outside" in freedom! Who is a God like unto our God?

Never will I forget this amazing Christmas when the single candle on the barrel reminded us that God is the true light of the World and in Him there is no darkness.

St. Isaac the Syrian once said: "O Lord, the Martyrs can show thee their wounds, which prove their love for Thee; the Saints show their virtues acquired through hope in the Joy of Thy Kingdom; the confessors offer their undying struggles for the Truth as proof of their faith in Thee. But I, 0 Lord, what do I offer up to Thee to show my love, hope and faith for having overcome death for me? I have neither wounds, nor virtues, nor ceaseless struggles to offer Thee as have the Martyrs, Saints and Confessors. All I can do is to plead for Thy Mercy towards me, a sinner, and to send me Thy Holy Spirit to teach we how to walk on the path of humility which is the only way left for me to enter Thy Kingdom."

So let us look for and support the true Christians of today, who have taken up their cross to follow Christ, the Orthodox Christians of the Catacomb Church of Russia. By supporting them in their spiritual struggles for the faith, for the Truth, we shall receive an award with them, so God has promised us. We have to choose our loyalties and cannot have a foot in two opposing camps.

When Christ, the head of the Christians, was crucified, there was only a faithful remnant left at the foot of His Cross. So it is today with the True Church of Christ. She is very small, greatly outnumbered by unbelievers of all kinds. We have to choose whether we want to belong to the sheep and be saved, or to be numbered among the goats.

"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers," in the warning. How many of us take hood and leave churches which are corpses in search of the True Living Church?

"He who seeks shall find."

He gave us a most beautiful gift by proving to us that what is impossible for man in possible for God. God can open doors or shut then for us an He wishes and just an he sent an angel to release Peter from prison, so He moved the heart of the Japanese officer to let these three children go. As it had been promised to their dying mother, God is quite capable of looking after three children as He manages the Milky Way, with all the other galaxies.

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