A reception with Jesuit alumni and friends followed the Mass. Take a look at some images of the event below, followed by Jocelyn's reflection.
2nd Sunday of Advent Reflection
by Jocelyn E. Collen, M.Div., 4:00 PM Advent Mass, St. Mary’s Chapel, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, M.A., December 8, 2019
Earlier this afternoon, and on most Sundays, I volunteer at Suffolk County House of Correction with a team of people. We bring Communion, the Gospel readings, and love to men and women who are incarcerated. My favorite place to visit is the disciplinary unit which is made up of cells for solitary confinement. The inmates “affectionately” call this place the hole because they are locked inside their cell for 23 hours a day, and they are not allowed to go to programming, classes, meetings, make phone calls, or worst of all, receive visits from their family and friends. The hole is a desert place of wilderness. When I visit the women in solitary confinement on Sundays, I will probably be the only person who will talk to them at eye level, and not shout at them, until I return the next time, or they are let out of the hole. People can stay in the hole for days, weeks, or months. One is sent to the hole if one starts or is involved in a fight, if they are found with contraband, and/or if they test positive for drugs. If an officer thinks one is being disrespectful or causing trouble, one can also be sent to the hole at the officer’s discretion.
When I visit with women in the hole, I have two choices to connect with them. I can either speak to them through thick glass on their door so we are very close so we can hear one another, yet, there is glass barrier between us. My only other choice is to have the officer open the “trap” which is the tiny meal slot that is about 3 inches high and a foot wide. It’s impossible to see someone’s whole face through the trap. I can either squat, kneel, or sit on a chair but bend completely over my legs in order to see someone’s eyes. The person in their cell needs to sit down on the floor or at least bend over to see me as well, so we are both on the floor. It’s not really ideal for any conversation, nor to stay in this position for more than a couple of minutes. But there’s no glass barrier with the trap open. I prefer to have the trap open and to be physically uncomfortable over speaking through the glass. The hole is a desert place. But I have the privilege of visiting the hole every time I visit the prison.
My mission is to bring some light, hope, and love to these people. We only have a few minutes together when I visit, and 90% of inmates who wish to speak to me and/or receive Communion, are miserable, angry, confused, sad, scared, lonely, desperate, and hopeless. Who can blame them??? Sometimes, if it feels appropriate, I offer that perhaps their little cell can become their sanctuary to pray and recharge. Perhaps, as they pray, they can ask God for what they need to help them get through the days of their sentence, and aide them when they get out. Most of the time, the misery that I see in the hole is all self-inflicted. I personally cannot imagine being stuck in a cell 23 hours a day. I can’t even stay in one zip code for a whole day, let alone stay in one room the entire day. The inmates in the hole feel suffocated by themselves. Bringing the Gospel and the Eucharist to them is a way of saying that God doesn’t see them as worthless failures. GOD sees them as loving and lovely beings, alive with potential to be free, healthy, safe, and flourishing. And by proximity, I see them this way too.
Today in the Gospel, we encounter John the Baptist wandering in the desert wilderness, preaching and baptizing people. He is wearing uncomfortable clothes. I used to think this was just because he was trying to be a rebel, but really they were clothes of the poor people on the margins of the day. So he is a rebel, but he sides with the poor. He ate locusts and wild honey- those were just whatever he could salvage on his journey. He is choosing to live the life of a wanderer in the desert. I definitely would not like to wander around in the desert, ever. John the Baptist was preaching about people repenting for their sins, as opposed to making holy sacrifices at the temple, but repenting right where they were in the desert, and being baptized with water. Wow! That’s a powerful image. To be talking about ourselves and our hearts, instead of sacrificing other things, a.k.a. killing other things, on behalf of our sins. What about that refreshing image of water in the desert? John the Baptist wasn’t just asking people to talk about their sins and to repent, but he was literally giving them water in the desert. That is a thirst-quenching image and thought. That’s what we need. We need a place to feel content and water for our thirst. I think that if John the Baptist were ministering today, he would find himself in a prison, in the desert wilderness known as the hole, and he would be baptizing people - inmates and officers alike.
Sometimes when we are in desert places, we can be transformed. . .
The wilderness and desert are all part of our lives and our paths to liberation, joy, and peace. John the Baptist is paving the way for Jesus, and reminding us that we haven’t seen ANYTHING yet with him. JESUS is going to baptize with FIRE. This fire symbolizes a REVOLUTION- a huge transformation of change. We often think of fire as destructive, damaging, and devastating. And it can be, of course. BUT fire is also cleansing! We need fire for our fields. Fire brings a transformation. Fire is very good for the soil. Fire is what helps make things grow and flourish. Baptism from Jesus, our Savior, by an UNQUENCHABLE fire can forge us into a new life and totally rearrange us.
The priests at the time of John the Baptist and the other political leaders - you might have heard them referred to as the Pharisees and Sadducees - were not happy about John the Baptist, and we even hear John the Baptist call them out. This was radical and out of the norm. No wonder people thought he was insane. John the Baptist was radical. This Gospel is radical. Perhaps you are radically living your life, and people might think you are insane. Are you opting out of driving and walking/biking/taking the T? Are you spending less money? Are you standing up for immigrant rights? Are you trying to be environmentally sustainable? Are you working for a nonprofit organization?
Advent is about “readying the way” and preparing the way for Jesus to come into our lives. In Advent, we have a great expectation for Jesus to transform us into active participants in the Gospel. We might not even know how we need to be transformed! What is it that you bring to this Advent season? What parts of your life are in need of a radical transformation? How do you need to be Baptized by unquenchable fire?
We are being invited. Advent is an invitation. In Advent, and today, we can let Jesus - yes LET Jesus- baptize us with fire. With this baptism, we can do anything. I believe that we all have what it takes to be happy, healthy, and free. Even if we are locked up. We believe in a God who loves us more than we can ever imagine or dream. No one, no thing, no lock, no diagnosis, no status can take away the love that God has for us. God does not keep score of our good and bad deeds.
One can easily ignore Advent and skip right to Christmas- just walk into any retail store and look for advent candles- you can’t find them- or turn on the radio. Will you hear any Advent songs on the radio?! Please please let me know if you do! NO we hear All I Want for Christmas is You, Jingle Bell Rock, I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus... We all need more joy- don’t get me wrong- but we can also savor this time of waiting. Most of life is about waiting. We can invite God in. We can invite God into whatever space we have been thrown into, and ask for help PREPARING THE WAY OF THE LORD so that when Christmas comes, Jesus can breathe in justice, peace, and joy to our lives with the unquenchable FIRE and transformation that John the Baptist has promised to us. With this fire, comes hope and passion. As St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans reminds us in the second reading, “ by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.”
We officially have permission to have hope. We are hope. Amen.