Imagine yourself in prison tonight. Imagine the concrete and steel. Is it cold or hot? Noisy or hollow? Does it smell like bleach or waste? Take a moment and go there.
It’s Holy Saturday and all you’ve got is a donated issue of Magnificat from Holy Week 2009. You remember how the strangest thing would happen at the Easter Vigil – dark and hushed, someone would chant this ancient song to a candle. You open up your missalette and there it is, the Exsultet. You don’t know how it goes but you do it anyway, as quietly as possible. You can’t believe how long it is.
Just a few stanzas in, you sing “let this holy building shake with joy” and you stop. You look around at the iron bars and steel toilet and wonder if this is what the poet had in mind. You keep going and before long you sing, “O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human.”
You stop again. You start to think it might be true.
This is the night when we wait for what we know will happen, somewhere between dusk and dawn.
This is the night we recount the history of salvation from Adam and Eve right up to ourselves, our pains, our families, our yearnings, our crimes. This is the night where our ancestors’ faults are called “happy,” and we wonder if we might ever call ours the same. This is the night when we wish we could ask Mary Magdalene, “How did you hold the Good News in your hands? How did you not explode?”
This is the night where Jesus says, “I did not create you to be a prisoner in hell.” This is the night where Jesus descends into our most awful, secret, abandoned spaces and commands us to wake up, rise, leave our darknesses behind, and follow him.
This is the night when Jesus takes our wounded hands in his and invites us to paradise.
I used to hang around halfway houses in Ohio.
One of the best friends I made there overdosed on heroin and blew out a major vein in the process. He went into a coma and got stitched up, but came out with long, thick scars stretching all over his body that look like railroad tracks or an endless staircase.
With time and work, he got well, made a peaceful life for himself, and set things right where they needed to be.
He used to joke that he was going to have his scars tattooed to look like a stairway to heaven. It’s been a while since I’ve checked in with him, but I hope he has.