“In much travail Christ is born in many hearts,” Richard wrote, reflecting on the 14 Christmases he spent in prison.
It was Christmas Eve and Richard Wurmbrand had just returned to his cell after 12 hours of slave labour in the bitter Romanian winter. His body ached, he was shivering and his stomach churned with hunger. For another hour, Captain Stan kept him and his fellow prisoners standing at attention.
“This has become hard as steel from beating prisoners,” the captain shouted while baring his fist. “I can crack any of you with one punch. I promise that for tomorrow’s feast you’ll be beaten worse than ever. Christ was not born for you. Nobody loves you. Your wives are now with other men. Your children are now communists and curse you. Merry Christmas.”
Richard and several of his cellmates knew otherwise. They knew that Jesus loved them and that He was born for every man in that prison, including Captain Stan.
After the captain had left, one of Richard’s cellmates, Pastor Craciun, stretched out his weakened body on the few wooden planks that served as a bed and whispered to Richard, “Tomorrow might be unpleasant, but ‘He that keeps Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep’” (Psalm 121:4). A moment later, the pastor was sleeping peacefully.
In the 14 Christmases Richard spent in prison, he met some who were not able to sleep as peacefully as Pastor Craciun.
“Help me! I have tortured many innocents,” cried Sepeanu, a former colonel in the communist secret police who lay dying in Richard’s cell. Communists jailed not only Christians, Jews and political opponents but also their own comrades. “I am going to hell,” he moaned to another pastor in the cell.
The pastor, who suffered for a faith that Richard knew wasn’t biblical, told the tormented officer, “Don’t worry! God is good. He has no hell.”
“If you burned with remorse as I do,” replied Sepeanu, “you would know there is a hell. I feel as if I am gliding toward it.”
In that moment, Richard witnessed the unbelieving pastor give the only message that brings peace: “No sin against God’s majesty goes without punishment, but Jesus has borne the punishment due to us. Through His blood we are saved from hell.” The communist was converted, and the pastor had learned a lesson from the admonition of a dying torturer.
Jesus was born in both their hearts.
In another cell, Richard once overheard a conversation between a pastor named Simeon and a thief named Cunia. Every day Cunia stole Simeon’s eyeglasses and then offered to return them in exchange for the pastor’s supply of sugar. Pastor Simeon never complained, and then one day he said to the thief, “I give you the sugar gladly. You don’t need to blackmail me by taking my glasses.”
“Why don’t you get angry and report me?” Cunia asked.
“Because I want you to become a better man,” Simeon replied. “I love you.”
“Nobody loves me,” Cunia said. “I am a thief.”
“It is Christmas, Jesus’ birth,” Simeon continued. “He loved thieves so much that He likened Himself to a thief who comes in the night. I too have learned much from thieves. You are passionate in your trade; you go to great lengths to get money. You suffer repeatedly, but, once freed, you revert to stealing. You are a model of persistence. Like you, I too like gold. I have chosen as my eternal abode a city where even the streets are paved with gold. Jesus came from there to enrich us. There is no need to steal any more.” Again, the story was told about the Son of God who was born in a stable to save us.
“Peering through the hollow eyes of death one can see the highest quality of life,” Richard wrote as he recalled these stories. “On Christmas the Son of God was made man that we might become children of God. His aim has been fulfilled. There are real children of God.”
On another Christmas Eve, Richard lay sick in bed while an abbot named Iscu lay in another bed on his right, awaiting death from the tortures he had endured. The abbot was serene, knowing he would soon be with Jesus in heaven. He spoke little, but when he did “he breathed truth that can be known only in deep pain,” Richard wrote.
On Richard’s left was another prisoner – the man who had tortured Iscu. His comrades had turned on him, and he too, had been imprisoned and tortured.
Distraught by his deeds, this man woke Richard during the night. “I have committed horrible crimes,” he confessed. “I can find no rest. Help me,” he pleaded.
Just then, Iscu called two other prisoners to his side to help him. Leaning on them, he walked slowly to his former torturer and sat down at his bedside. “You were young and did not know what you were doing,” he said, caressing the man’s head. “I forgive and love you, as do all the other Christians you mistreated. And if we sinners who have been saved by Jesus can love like this, how much more is He ready to erase all the evil you have done, to cleanse you fully. Only repent.”
In that common cell in which there was no privacy, Richard heard the torturer confessing his crimes to the tortured. And he overheard the tortured absolving his torturer before they embraced.
Both men died that night, on Christmas Eve. It was not simply a commemoration of the event in Bethlehem. It was Jesus being born in the heart of a criminal.
“This is the real meaning of Christmas,” Richard wrote. “Such men love the cross and endure its humiliation. They follow the Man of Sorrows in suffering that has been freely chosen for the sake of truth.”
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