Twenty-Eighth Sunday of the Year
9 October 2011
My dear friends,
In the first reading of this Sunday’s Mass, Isaiah looks forward to better times in the future, when the Lord will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, and will wipe away the tears from every check. In the second reading, Paul suggests that better times have arrived, and he gives glory to God, because now there is nothing he cannot master with the help of the one who gives him strength.
The Gospel reading compares the kingdom of heaven to a wedding feast. Those who were invited made other choices, and were not interested in coming, so the invitation was extended to pretty well everyone, good and bad alike. There were obviously certain conditions for entry, because anyone not wearing a wedding garment was firmly evicted, and we are told that of those invited few enough seem to meet the criteria required.
How do we put flesh and blood on all of these messages? During the week, I was reading about people who ended up in prison, some of whom were befriended by others, who were kind enough to show more than a passing interest. The befrienders were ordinary people, living very normal lives. They all had either been brought up in the Christian way, or had been drawn to it by the example and love of others, or else they had a conversion experience of one kind or another during their lives.
In writing about prison visits afterwards, one of the befrienders recalled what he saw written over one of the gates along the corridors of the prison. It read, “You were not made to live like brutes.” He reflected to himself “It’s true, we are not made to live like that, but it happens. It can be seen, in everyone’s life, that we are capable of being brutes when we go wrong, very wrong. Today, though, I discovered that my greatest need, everyone’s need, is to be forgiven, each one for his own evil.”
Another man, reflecting on his visits to prisoners, wrote “I have seen old men and bad men become children again, changed, with their faces like people captivated by a presence. For the whole day, I felt as if I was in a scene from the Acts of the Apostles. These are mostly men with life sentences. It was surprising for me to see men who have done everything, down to the darkest depths of evil, for whom that very wound was the breach through which something new entered them, and they felt themselves reborn to a certain hope, full of pain for the victims of their evil.”
“All around were the prison walls and, in the middle, the botanical garden tended by the gardening school, as if the Lord had taken a piece of dry land and made it flower before our eyes. There was the prisoner I had visited for many months in his white baptismal gown and in the front row his family who had come fromAlbania, his father a Muslim and his mother Orthodox, thanking and shaking hands with everyone who had found their prodigal son. All schemes, preconceptions and religious belonging faded into the background.”
Let me tell you a little about a prisoner called Rodney. In 2007 he wrote, “I came to prison bound with more than physical restraints. I will leave educated and rejuvenated. You know my maths is very bad but when I cam here I met this guy who is very smart and good at maths. He’s been helping me out every night for the last month. I’ve had test after test and teachers on top of teachers and for 30 years have never been able to do even basic maths until now when some tall black inmate gets it across clear as a bell. I call that God.”
In late November 2010, Rodney’s mother died of cancer. He was granted permission to see his mother in the hospital hours before her death and he was allowed to attend the funeral. He wrote afterwards, “Torn between grief and overwhelming gratitude, it has been hard the past few days to find the words to express how I feel. The prayers said, the time spent visiting and the sheer care that each of you showed through Mum’s battle with cancer has been a powerful example of how Christ-like people can be, as well as how much you truly loved her. It has been so frustrating to want to be able to help, but not be allowed. But you have all been there in my place, and laid down parts of your lives for me and for Mum. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
Over the years, Rodney has been a man whose humanity has been transformed by meeting Christ through his people. Another prisoner put it like this, “I have never been so free in my life as I have since I hit my knees” (in other words, began praying). There is friendship and so much more at play here. “We exult and we rejoice that he has saved us,” said Isaiah. “There is nothing I cannot master with the help of the one who gives me strength,” said Paul. “The servants collected everyone they could find, bad and good alike,” the Gospel says. Life is full of surprises; maybe the afterlife will be too. It does seem to me that the stories of the people just told, indicate that they were well enough dressed to be counted among the chosen few at the Gospel wedding feast.
+Liam S. MacDaid
9 October 2011