I was a junior in college when one of the worst prison riots in the United States took place near Buffalo. For four days, 2,200 inmates took control of the Attica Correctional Facility. They held 42 officers and employees as hostages and threatened to kill them if their demands were not met. Authorities agreed to make 28 concessions but as the remaining negotiations broke down Gov. Nelson Rockefeller ordered an end to the uprising. When the teargas cleared, and the stabbings and bullets ceased, 33 felons and 10 guards and staff members were dead. While some damage had been done to the buildings, apparently only one structure was burned to the ground. That was the tiny prison chapel.
As far as what can be known by people living outside those penitentiary walls, the facts above are true. What follows below may not be as historically precise, but is intended primarily as a spiritual reflection.
Matthew S. spent each of his teen years moving from one juvenile facility to another. At age 21 he began serving a life sentence at Attica and was among the seniors of the inmate population when this infamous riot occurred. Although extremely poor in his formal education Matthew possessed an exceptional gift for art. With a broken lead pencil, he could sketch a serene still life on a plain paper napkin, complete with depth of field, riveting highlights, mysterious shadows and all done under 10 minutes time.
When a subsequent warden announced that the destroyed chapel at Attica would be restored, a few of the lifers asked if they, rather than some external vendor, could rebuild the worship space themselves. Much to the surprise of everyone involved, the warden agreed. As the new chapel was nearing completion, his fellow inmates approached the aging artist and asked if he would paint a Christmas mural of the Holy Family on the wall behind the altar. Matthew agreed. When the Nativity scene was finished the prisoners, in military fashion, were permitted to process single file into the building and view the craftsmanship and art of these talented convicts. Every man nodded approvingly at the strength of the columns, the vault of the ceiling and the comfort of the pews. But for the painting on the wall they could only tilt their head and look quizzically at what Matthew had done. The three figures of the Holy Family were plain enough to see. But all three images, St. Joseph, the Blessed mother, and the baby Jesus, had adult faces. When his closest cellmates asked Matthew why he had drawn the baby Jesus with the face of an adult, his answer was simple. He had not seen an infant for so long that it was impossible for him to remember what a newborn’s face should look like.
During Advent we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christ, both his second coming and his first. The pivotal questions we ask ourselves during this purple penitential season are: How close are we, spiritually speaking, to the Creator who became one of us because he loved us? How often do our thoughts, words and deeds reflect the image of God that we were made in from our birth? Are we close enough to Christ to remember the innocent face that died for our sins, or have we become distant prisoners so far from his grace that we are forgetting what the face of God looks like?
Each of us has the free will and the power to create a prison of our own making. Isolation, separation, loneliness and sin can lock us behind very cold bars. Our hearts, St. Augustine said so well, are made for God and we will wander in restlessness until we rest in the Loving Heart who set us free.
For Holy Homework: Let’s display the Christmas crèche early this year, whether under the tree or on a stand where we can pass by it often, so we can pause and say a prayer of thanksgiving while contemplating the baby face of Jesus.
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