I was really looking forward to this Christmas season.

Our church was going to be returning to worship in our sanctuary and gathering for Sunday school in-person for the first time in nearly two years. The excitement around our congregation was palpable.

Then, the State of Mississippi executed David Cox, the first execution here since 2012.

“Merry Christmas from Mississippi,” I thought, as I cobbled together a prayer service for our church the evening of the execution.

Cox had long been on a list of individuals on death row to whom members of our prison ministry wrote letters.

In addition to these letters, this small group regularly compiles stories, poetry and devotions from people who are incarcerated and publishes a newsletter called The Good News.

The history of this work, grounded in Jesus’ own calls to proclaim release to the captives and to minister to those imprisoned, guided our prayers that night.

We prayed for an end to violence, all of it — the kind Cox visited upon his family, the kind visited upon those employed by the state to kill those who kill others, and the kind inflicted on those asked or required to be in the room when it was done.

We prayed for our friends, members of the prison ministry and our former pastor, whom Cox asked to visit with in the hours leading up to his death. Our time together rekindled some of my excitement for Christmas.

As the days wore on, the commotion died down. Any conversations about working to end violence were soon drowned out by those surrounding the Mississippi case before the Supreme Court regarding abortion.

Those conversations were later overwhelmed by news of a new COVID-19 variant. Then, we all remembered we had Christmas shopping to do.

Instead of renewed energy about ending violence in all its forms, we all found ourselves sucked back into cycles of fear and hatred, apathy and distraction. It felt familiar, at least, but once again it didn’t feel like Christmas was on its way.

Then, I remembered what I often forget: Jesus’ birth, at least in Matthew’s telling of it, is cloaked in fear and death. His family rejoices at his conception and immediately starts running for their lives once he’s born.

The world didn’t stop turning, and the powerful didn’t stop wielding their weapons. Those facing violence and its consequences stayed hidden or remained ignored, and the magi were still looking for gifts.

And my mind went back to David Cox.

His crimes left a wake of pain and suffering behind him that is difficult to be forgiven and cannot be understated. How he got to the point where he thought what he did would solve anything, I do not know.

I do know, however, that he’d once been in a womb like you, me and Jesus. He’d come into a world that valued life at certain points, but never all the way through.

He came into a world that chooses to meet violence with violence. That might be vengeance, but I don’t think it’s justice, and I know it’s not grace.

My Christmas spirit was gone.

Last week, David Cox’s remains were delivered to our church. One of his final wishes was to be buried on free ground.

He asked the prison ministry if they would agree to receive his body upon his death. They agreed.

And so, a couple dozen folks from across Mississippi gathered to grant his final wish – not because we agreed with his choices or wished to diminish the pain he caused that can’t be undone, but because this small group of people made a promise to minister to the imprisoned and proclaim release to the captives.

They believed that if God’s grace isn’t big enough to cover someone like David Cox, then it isn’t big enough to cover any of us. Grace comes to all of us or none of us. Anything less isn’t grace.

I scattered his ashes in the memorial garden. One member of the prison ministry and one of Cox’s attorneys spoke. His sister sat with us.

We later ate lunch and talked about the brokenness all around us that leads us to pass trauma on to others instead of healing it.

As I listened to the conversation, I thought about the work everyone in that room was doing to bring an end to violence.

I thought about everyone I know working to heal the trauma life visits upon us or to prevent it from ever happening by improving access to health care, education and opportunity, and I gave thanks for all of them.

Looking around that room, I remembered something else too.

Yes, the world keeps turning, the distractions keep mounting and our pain still needs healing, but the light never stops shining. Sometimes, it is as small as a newborn baby.

Whatever its size, when it is fueled by grace, it can only grow bigger and brighter.

I saw in the midst of the death and fear that has cloaked this Christmas season (just as it did all those years ago) that there is, once again, a glimmer of hope, present and full of potential, shining through it all.

I also saw that there are people who know that if we give it space to shine, then the light can change our lives forever.

And I started looking forward to Christmas again.

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