Hi. I have a few reflections on the Resurrection and what it means in our lives. This piece of art brings us into it. It's the angel at the empty tomb, pointing, and saying, "Why do you seek the living with the dead?" This is an invitation to live our lives as we've learned in Christ.
There are no direct witnesses to the Resurrection of Jesus. If there had been a video camera outside the tomb that night and early Easter morning, it would have shown things just as they were. There is no direct evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus, because it's not about that level of experience; the Resurrection is about the mysterious level of experience in our spiritual-mystical lives. It is about how, even though, we die we can live; and how death doesn't have the final word.
As I was growing up, my first understandings of the Resurrection of Jesus were that Jesus rose from the dead and we used that in apologetics to prove he was the Son of God. So everything he taught, through the church, had to be the truth. He rose. And the apostles were the witnesses and they passed it on to us. And later you come to say, 'well, wait, what does my faith depend on? What does Resurrection really mean?' And it was very much for me an individualistic thing. It meant that one day I was going to die, but me, Helen, my ego was going to come through intact. Then I'd be in heaven somewhere in glory. But I'm just basically not going to change drastically, I'm just going to be me… an individualistic approach to religion.
But over the years, as the community has reflected, we have moved away from that individualistic conception of resurrection and the afterlife into one of personal transformation, of being able to move past our ego and our selfishness into a state of love and into a state of community.
It's interesting that the first Resurrection appearance in art was Jesus, the individual, rising. But in the Eastern Church, the art always manifested early on with Jesus rising bringing humanity along with him. That's more the Eastern frame of mind: that when we rise, we rise together. This understanding has been shown recently in a book by John Dominic Crossan and his wife, Resurrecting Easter, which gets away from the individualistic conception of Resurrection.
And one more deep insight comes from Sandra Schneiders, who wrote the book Jesus Risen in Our Midst on what the Resurrection of Jesus means in our own personal lives, what kind of dynamic can be spoken of here that we all can access. And she has particular insight into the appearance in the Gospel of John.
On Easter night, the apostles are all hidden because they're scared and Jesus somehow is in their midst and says to them, 'Peace be with you.' And they needed peace. They had all fled and betrayed Jesus – especially Peter, who had denied him. And they could not live for the rest of their lives knowing that they had betrayed him in the moment of his death. So that appearance – whatever that experience was – was first a message of peace.
And then secondly, the message to them was ‘whose sins you forgive are forgiven.’ And this is about how we live in community. We’ve got to learn to forgive each other. And the second part has been misinterpreted for a long time. It has been interpreted and ‘whose sins you retain shall be retained.’ In other words, those that you hold back from forgiveness, God's going to hold back forgiveness also. And Sandra Schneiders has interpreted the Greek word. It's not whose sins you shall retain shall be retained, but those you forgive will always be forgiven and those who hold fast will always be held fast. In other words, community is about is commitment and love and holding each other fast.
In my life and direct experience with people being executed and with the families of the executed, I've had to stare directly into their deaths. I'm thinking of Robert Wayne Williams. He was the first man executed in Louisiana in 1983 and he had – he was guilty – he killed a man during the murder. His mother, Rose Williams, stood outside the gates when the word came that Robert Wayne had been executed. She was in the dark – it was at midnight – with all the reporters around her. And I remember her saying, ‘Robert Wayne's life is now hidden with Christ in God.’ It was a quote from Saint Paul. She refused to let his electrocuted body be fixed up in the funeral home and showed him in the coffin just as the state had killed him. She was a woman of tremendous faith.
My other personal experience I want to share with you is the death of my sister Mary Ann two years ago. We were very close. We grew up neck and neck, nip and tuck. I have this picture of her. She had a brain tumor and she slowly slipped from us. She went to sleep in this little hammock from Nicaragua, like a little cocoon. And then after she died, I had this picture of the hammock empty …that she was no longer visible. She was no longer with us. And having to find her voice in my heart that she was with me always and saying to me, 'Helen, everybody dies. You're going to die too. Don't be a sissy,' she was always more courageous than me, and 'live your life and die your death, I'll always be with you.’ This is Sister Helen Prejean. I wrote the book Dead Man Walking. I work for life against state killing.
Helen Prejean, CSJ
Sister Helen Prejean is known around the world for her tireless work against the death penalty. She has been instrumental in sparking national dialogue on capital punishment and in shaping the Catholic Church’s vigorous opposition to all executions.
Born on April 21, 1939, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph in 1957. After studies in the USA and Canada, she spent the following years teaching high school, and serving as the Religious Education Director at St. Frances Cabrini Parish in New Orleans and the Formation Director for her religious community.
In 1982, she moved into the St. Thomas Housing Project in New Orleans in order to live and work with the poor. While there, Sister Helen began corresponding with Patrick Sonnier, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of two teenagers. Two years later, when Patrick Sonnier was put to death in the electric chair, Sister Helen was there to witness his execution. In the following months, she became spiritual advisor to another death row inmate, Robert Lee Willie, who was to meet the same fate as Sonnier.
After witnessing these executions, Sister Helen realized that this lethal ritual would remain unchallenged unless its secrecy was stripped away, and so she sat down and wrote a book, Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. Dead Man Walking hit the shelves when national support for the death penalty was over 80% and, in Sister Helen’s native Louisiana, closer to 90%. The book ignited a national debate on capital punishment and it inspired an Academy Award winning movie, a play and an opera. Sister Helen also embarked on a speaking tour that continues to this day.
Sister Helen works with people of all faiths and those who follow no established faith, but her voice has had a special resonance with her fellow Catholics. Over the decades, Sister Helen has made personal approaches to two popes, John Paul II and Pope Francis, urging them to establish the Catholic Church’s position as unequivocally opposed to capital punishment under any circumstances. After Sister Helen’s urging, under John Paul II the catechism was revised to strengthen the church’s opposition to executions, although it allowed for a very few exceptions. Not long after meeting with Sister Helen in August of 2018, Pope Francis announced new language of the Catholic Catechism which declares that the death penalty is inadmissible because it is an attack on the inviolability and dignity of the person, with no exceptions.
Today, although capital punishment is still on the books in 30 states in the USA, it has fallen into disuse in most of those states. Prosecutors and juries alike are turning away from death sentences, with the death penalty becoming increasingly a geographical freak. Sister Helen continues her work, dividing her time between educating the public, campaigning against the death penalty, counseling individual death row prisoners, and working with murder victims’ family members. Sister Helen’s second book, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, was published in 2004; and her third book, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey,in 2019.
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