From Prison to Praise!
Imagine a prisoner sitting alone in a dark cell…hemmed in and hopeless, with nothing but four walls to contemplate. That was Nelson Mandela’s reality for 27 years. We’re all familiar with Mandela because of his very public profile after his release from prison in 1990.But only Mandela himself knew the daily struggle of a life spent behind bars and the frustration and anger at being held captive unjustly. It must have taken great strength on his part to hold on to some sense of inner freedom, when every other freedom was taken away.
One experience that helped Mandela hold onto that inner freedom was discovering a short novel by the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, called Things Fall Apart. Mandela said that as he read the book, it was like his prison walls fell down around him. As he read, he was a free man. Because no-one, no white, no black, no president, no prison-officer, no policeman, had the power to take his freedom to imagine…his freedom to think…his freedom to dream, his freedom to believe. And that inner freedom is what’s most sacred about each and every one of us too. Others may well have the power and the authority to lock us in prison cells, they can enslave us and take away our physical freedom,but no-one can take away our freedom to imagine, or to think, or to dream. And by that same token, no-body can take away our freedom to believe in God.
That’s the point today’s Gospel is making. John the Baptist is arrested. His physical freedom is taken from him.His voice crying out in the wilderness is silenced. But no prison walls can come between him and God. The prison walls surrounding John might stop him going anywhere,but they can’t prevent God’s light from shining through.
Sometimes Jesus’ withdrawal to Galilee after John’s arrest is seen as his way of fleeing from Herod and trying to avoid the same fate as John. But if that were the case he wouldn’t have headed for Galilee because Galilee was Herod’s region… So its much more likely that John’s imprisonment only served to further convince Jesus that his mission was to build on the foundations laid down by John and preach the Kingdom of God. But it wasn’t among the rich and the learned that he was to start…it was in Galilee, and the Galilean had a notorious reputation for being boorish, and uncouth. Even the Jews considered Galilean Jews as second class…
St. Matthew is always very anxious to portray Jesus as the embodiment of God’s promises to the Jewish people…and so he beautifully describes Jesus’ presence in Capernaum as the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy that a light would shine in the darkness with the advent of the saviour, the Messiah, on the horizon. Nothing is an obstacle that can prevent God’s light shining through. And nothing, absolutely nothing can stop God’s light shining into the heart of every believer…
So those words are as relevant for us today as they were when John the Baptist was put in prison.Because while we don’t find ourselves in prison physically, we’re very good at building up prison walls around us in our minds, and imprisoning ourselves with our own problems and difficulties to the point where we begin to feel we have no freedom…But whatever it is that imprisons us, our worries, our selfishness, our addictions, our resentments…Christ still reaches out to us with those words: “Follow me” and as we answer his call,all the walls that imprison us begin to crumble around us, so that we can learn once again to trust him and allow the light of his freedom shine into our hearts.In the words of St. Francis: Most high, glorious God, enlighten the darkness of my heart and give me Lord, a correct faith, a certain hope, a perfect charity, sense and knowledge,so that I may carry out your holy and true command. Amen