One couple arrived for Mass on Christmas Day just as Mass started, and left the church straight from going to Holy Communion. They didn't want to speak to anybody. It was heartbreaking. This is the first Christmas that they will not have one of their sons at home: he received a life sentence for murder earlier this year.
I know that there is another family who will also have had an absence at the table this year: an absence that will never ever be filled on this earth. I know that there is a young man who will lose his twenties and thirties in prison out of which he will probably emerge in his forties, as an institutionalised drug addict. I prayed for them. But I mainly reflected on the hidden victims of this particular crime: an innocent couple whose world has been torn apart so badly that they felt that they needed to shun any sign of human warmth on the day we celebrated Christ's Incarnation.
I have never enjoyed the Sign of Peace: it is a distraction just before Communion and interrupts the flow of the Mass. (If we have to have it, would it not be better after the Confiteor or the Kyrie and before the Gloria?) But yesterday I saw the Sign of Peace living up to its name: two people physically joined to the love being shared in a parish community. People who knew the story and people who didn't unselfconsciously offered a hand to this couple and asked God's peace for them, and they accepted and for perhaps the first time, perhaps the only time, on Christmas Day, returned the prayer and the contact and managed to smile, before embracing each other.
Rereading this, it seems a bit like a mawkish parody of one of Dickens' Christmas stories: blame that on my writing. But this happened here in England yesterday, on Christmas Day 2006. I saw two blighted lives transformed, for however short a time by love, before the Christ just made present on the altar on the feast of his Incarnation, whom they then received.