On the Tuesday of the sixth week of Easter, in the days before the Solemnity of the Ascension, the first reading for Mass is Acts 16:22-34, the story of Paul and Silas in jail in Corinth.
What an odd story. The story teller sets up certain familiar expectations. The good guys are in jail for doing the right thing according to God’s rules. As Peter said earlier in Acts, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). And Paul and Silas were obeying God and following in Jesus’ footsteps by casting an evil spirit out of a slave girl. Unfortunately for them, her owners had been making a profit on her as a fortune teller, and apparently a successful one. But her success depended on the evil spirit. No spirit, no fortune telling. No fortune telling, no fortune for her owners. So they had Paul and Silas thrown in jail on trumped up charges.
Paul and Silas are not your typical prisoners, at least by the standards of a first-century Greek jail. They don't grouse or sing songs of "O poor me." They pray and sing praise to God. Here is a novelty that gets the other prisoners listening. Even in jail they are doing their job, preaching the good news to captives (see Luke 4:18).
Now comes the punch line for which the storyteller has set us up: our God is bigger than those old Greek gods, and he's gonna prove it! Drum roll! Earthquake! Gates thrown open! Chains torn off! As the Easter theme song plays in the background, they all go free!
But they don't. Paul and Silas and the other prisoners all stay put, right there in that broken down jail. Of course Paul and Silas get a new family of Christians out of it, and maybe some other new Christians among the other prisoners, though the storyteller walks away and leaves them there in the jail while he follows Paul and Silas to the jailer’s house and, eventually, to freedom. Now, at last, after the startling little hiccup in the story line, the grand finale we’ve been expecting since the jail gates were thrown open: Paul, with his inimitable chutzpah, refuses to sneak away quietly as the magistrates want him to do, nervous as they are over the fact that they have dared to throw two Roman citizens in jail. No, Paul orchestrates a grand departure, with the magistrates themselves leading the two erstwhile prisoners out. Another drum roll! Trumpets!
But during the delay, before all the fanfare, when Paul and Silas make the decision to stay in the jail among the broken chains, behind the gates hanging off their hinges, they actually preach a less recognized gospel but an essential one.
The hinge between Luke’s gospel and his Acts of the Apostles is that dramatic moment on the hilltop when Jesus took leave of his disciples. He had spent forty days since the resurrection instructing them, but now it’s time to go, as he had warned them he must. He led them out of Jerusalem as far as Bethany. There, according to the gospel, “he parted from them and was taken up to heaven” (Luke 24:50). In Acts, Luke expands the story: “… as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him from their sight. While they were looking intently at the sky as he was going, suddenly two men dressed in white garments stood beside them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing there looking at the sky? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will return in the same way as you have seen him going into heaven" (Acts 1:9-11). We celebrate this event next Sunday under the title of “the Ascension of the Lord.” An older custom dictated that after the gospel was proclaimed at the Mass of the Ascension, the Easter candle was extinguished as a sign that the One who had been visible among them for so long was indeed gone from their sight.
It’s an evocative enough symbol, but it always felt to me like a betrayal. At the Vigil, the inextinguishable Light appeared in the darkness as if from nowhere. The candle made its way majestically through the gloomy church. The Exsultet, the incense, the alleluias, all of it, proclaimed that the Light was with us and death, as John’s gospel announced, could not take him from us again.
And now, on the Ascension, the unquenchable Light of the world was quenched. Christ was gone. All that was left of him was a dead candle. That may not have been what the ritual meant, but it’s what it said to me. It was not an unreasonable reading. The language of the two ascension accounts in the gospel and Acts implies very vividly that he had been with them and then he left. For a long time, I thought of the Ascension liturgy as the funeral after what must in fact have felt like a second death to the disciples. Promises of a mysterious Spirit to come must have seemed cold comfort with their beloved Master gone again, this time apparently for the long haul.
Paul and Silas in jail tell a different truth. The echoes of Easter are unmistakable in many of the stories of the disciples in Acts, and here they ring out loud and clear. The prison in Corinth, like the prison of the tomb, like the prison of the Upper Room, stale, stuffy, dark, is broken open by an earthquake like the one that set the dead free to wander the city at the time of the Crucifixion (Matthew 27:51-54). But Paul and Silas don’t leave. They are no longer trapped. They are not afraid. They just don’t go. They stay right where they are with the other prisoners.
And that is the other truth of the Ascension. Jesus didn’t leave. He doesn’t leave. He’s right here with us in this our present prisons, whatever they may be. We can’t see him with our bodily eyes, but he’s here alright. We can all name the moments of light by which we’ve read his presence. He said he wouldn’t leave us, and he hasn’t. And he won’t: ”Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
At the same time, he’s not here to stay, because neither are we. Remember all those gospel stories in which Jesus unlocks jail cells of one kind or another—sickness, isolation, sin, paralysis, even death itself? He always finishes off unlocking the doors by telling the newly liberated captives to get up and get moving: pick up your mat and walk, go show the priest your clean skin, go home and tell no one yet, come along with me, Lazarus come out, and, perhaps the one that captures them all: Go, and sin no more. Go on, get going, you don’t belong here on this bed, behind this begging bold, in this tomb. Not anymore.
That basic story is still true. Healing and rising from the dead are a very long process indeed for most of us, but we’re on the way. We’ve been baptized, we’ve received the Spirit, we are forgiven. In one way or another, bit by bit, day by day, our jail cells are being thrown open and our chains cut loose. It can happen so slowly that we may not even realize it for quite a while. Or, if we do, we may look around and figure the familiar jail cell is safer after all. Better just stay here. It was not for nothing Jesus asked the paralytic at Bethesda, “Do you want to get well?” (Cf. John 5:6). Wellness, freedom, life, carry us into uncertainties, responsibilities, unknowns that may well give us pause here on the threshold of our ruined jails.
But Paul and Silas stand as reminders that the One who has broken open our jails hasn’t left us. He’s still right here in the familiar cells with us. He will stay until we’re ready to leave. He doesn’t believe in dragging people out of darkness into the light, or even in carrying us, it seems. He waits instead, and waits very patiently, for the day when he can lead us out, walking beside us all the way, as promised: “I am with you always.”
After all, Paul and Silas did leave the jail. When it was time.
Copyright 2012, Abbey of St. Walburga