First Sunday of Advent: Keeping Watch on Death Row

December 3, 2023  |  Fr. George Williams |  Today’s Readings

“Be watchful! Be alert!
You do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 12:33)


Last Sunday I said Mass at San Quentin, the California prison which houses the state’s death row. As I stood behind the altar, I looked out at a full chapel — more than 100 prisoners gathered together. In their faces I saw something that moved me to tears.

I didn’t see criminals, but rather I saw the face of the Lord revealed back to me in human flesh, in tattooed necks and shaved heads, in white and black and brown, in murderers and sex offenders and bank robbers and drug addicts. I saw in them what they probably cannot see in themselves.

I was recalling this moment as I reflected on this Sunday’s Gospel, which ends with a command from Jesus. It’s just one word: “Watch!” Jesus reminds us to stay alert and attentive to his presence, wherever we are — even on death row.

I am blessed to have the privilege of being a priest for the men in this prison. This understanding of blessing is not naïve romanticizing. I hear their confessions, I know why they are there. I know there are many people they have hurt along the way.

But I also know, because I have been allowed inside some of their hearts, that they have seen and suffered things I can barely imagine. Somehow, (and it can only be the Grace of God), they survive, and they are hungry for hope, forgiveness, and healing.

Ironically, I find prisoners, unlike many of us in the free world, are more honest. They’ve been broken down and exposed, labeled for the worst things they have done. Yet in these brutal places of punishment and revenge, I have often experienced pure joy — joy in the revelation that God’s love, revealed through Christ in the human spirit, is stronger than the hardest steel bars or sharpest razor wire.

If I were to die tomorrow, this grace would be enough; I will be grateful forever to have caught a glimpse of the face of God in that moment on the altar. 

Where might you encounter the face of God, if only you remember to “Watch!”?

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