Joy and Hope
March 20, 2010
How hard the search for answers can be
In the 25th chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, we find the often repeated Christian admonition:
“’Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’”
These are words that should haunt the Christian. The setting for this conversation in the Gospel of Matthew was the last judgment. The king is the figure of the Lord Jesus who will meet each of us at the culmination of time. He will examine how we treated him in those many encounters throughout our lives when we had the chance to know him, love him, and serve him in the smallest of his brothers and sisters. The Gospel story makes us very aware that the glorious final judgment is rehearsed in humble, ordinary meetings of our daily routines.
These words haunt me every time I enter a jail or correctional facility to offer Mass for a particular cellblock or section of the prison. I go when I can. I admire the priests, deacons and lay volunteers who generously give their time on a regular basis to visit those who are imprisoned.
It is not just the time that one spends visiting those who are incarcerated to pray with them, sing some hymns and celebrate the Mass with them. The time spent getting through the various checkpoints, metal detectors and stations is often long and tedious. It is a necessary precaution. The routine is meticulous, monotonous, but essential. There is callous indifference as faces are matched with one’s identification. One is reminded to leave cell phones outside.
As metal doors clang shut behind you, the sense of being separated from the world outside — while temporary — stirs a sense of panic and fear. When one finally comes into a cellblock or into the yard the air is permeated with caution and suspicion. It is the air of crime and punishment. To say the least, it is not a comfortable feeling.
I want to quickly get into the familiar routines of setting up for Mass and the calming rituals of prayers. Once that happens, then the inmates themselves become familiar. “Welcome to church. What are we going to sing today? Who’s going to be the lector? How many are going to Communion?” Usually someone will ask, “Do you know Father So-and-So?” Another will have the not too surprising refrain, “I used to be an altar boy.”
During the Mass there are the usual jailhouse hymns: “Amazing Grace,” “For these tears I died,” “They’ll know we are Christians by our love,” “Alabaré,” and “Pescador de Hombres.” Sometimes on key; most times not.
At some point in the ceremony, there usually comes the realization that we all stand before the throne of God. The kind and merciful crucified king is looking at each of us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” As in any Mass, it is not just us. The whole church is present at every Mass. This means there is also the silent presence of those who are the victims of crime, the lives shattered by violence, those families wounded by the crimes committed. “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”
There is a seeming absurdity to sharing the Divine Word and the sacred Eucharist in this numbing atmosphere of fear, anguish and suspicion. It is an absurdity for those who believe that the clanging steel doors are the last word, the final judgment. The ritual of the Mass defies those doors just as it defies both time and space to bring us all around Calvary’s cross. We are made mindful of what He did for all of us, his brothers and sisters. The eucharistic altar of sacrifice draws all together to be as one as the one bread and the one cup.
In the second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation there is the supplication after the consecration: “We ask you, Father, to accept us, together with your Son. Fill us with his Spirit through our sharing in this meal. May he take away all that divides us.” In a jail these words can seem so absurd but then Paul reminds us: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.” (I Cor. 1.25)
After Mass, there is always a sign of relief as I walk out the main gate. The last clanging door behind me means that I can walk back to my car, check my cell phone for messages, put the key into the ignition, turn on the radio and drive home. Standing at the Cathedral altar or the altar of another parish church the same ritual where we gather brings to mind the world divided by the cinder block walls, concertina wire and bolted doors.
The costs of crime and punishment are much debated as the state of California faces a daunting fiscal crisis. At the heart of the matter is the uncertainty about what will keep us safe. The long tedious walk into a prison so that I can greet a brother or sister with the words, “The Lord be with you,” is sober reminder of how painfully hard the search for answers can be. Will the clanging slam of our correctional facilities be the last word?
All sides to this unsettling anguish are brought around the same altar where the final judgment begins. There we meet one another in the shadow of the one who keeps reminding us, “Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.”