Season of Joy
Today's Season of Joy reflection on Acts 16:22-34 is by Sister Marcelline Koch, OP.
Sister Marcelline, a Dominican Sister of Springfield, IL, directs her congregation’s Office of Justice. Her ministry includes education and advocacy around antiracism, immigration, socially responsible investing, and many other justice issues. She believes in networking with others and grounding the work in prayer and contemplation.
from Acts 16:22-34
About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying
and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened,
there was suddenly such a severe earthquake
that the foundations of the jail shook;
all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose.
When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open,
he drew his sword and was about to kill himself,
thinking that the prisoners had escaped...
To read the full scripture passage, please visit: https://bible.usccb.org/bible/
We usually think of earthquakes as tragic events. We’ve seen the loss of life, home, and habitat, so much destruction. Earthquakes also loosen and churn the soil, helping vegetation to flourish, so earthquakes are part of shaping Earth.
The earthquake described in this reading did some destruction to the jail structure and, in so doing, created freedom for Paul and Silas by eliminating the bars of imprisonment. In experiencing that physical freedom, Paul and his companion leaned into the freedom they knew because of their belief in Jesus. They stayed put and spoke of the Lord, sharing with the jailer and his household their experience of Jesus and the truth of God’s love for all. So the earthquake also created an opportunity for new life for the jailer and his family.
Metaphorically speaking, there are earthquakes in our lives that jar us – situations, events, people, joys, hurts, suffering. Sometimes they do damage. Sometimes they offer us opportunities we wouldn’t have had before. Other times, they challenge us to grow. In a sense, earthquakes are part of shaping each of us.
So what do we do in our lives when we are beset by these earthquakes; when we experience such unsettledness?
We can lean into Jesus to help see us through. Initially in their pain and imprisonment, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God. They connected to the One Whom they knew and loved, and Whom they knew loved them.
And Jesus would also have us lean into others. Our God is a trinity; our God is a community. In our coming to know the divine within us, we simultaneously discover that the divinity within ourselves is one and the same in all individuals, in all creatures, in all life. Our relationship with others matters; it forms us, strengthens us, delights us, and heals us.
As well, Jesus would also have us lean into the other-than-human world. We are part of the natural world, not apart from it. Connecting intentionally to trees, plants, soil, air, water – gifts of Earth – can help us to know our oneness with God and others.
As I think of earthquakes, I want to share about Jennifer, who experienced an “earthquake” at the age of 19 and another one 19 years later. I met Jennifer through my work with the Illinois Innocence Project, which takes on cases of wrongfully convicted persons.
Her destructive earthquake began in March 2001, when two masked men attempted to rob a small restaurant. The owner, wielding a butcher knife, and his employee chased the men out of the restaurant. In the ensuing chase, the owner was shot and killed.
Jennifer was wrongfully convicted of being the getaway driver. She didn’t even know what was going on. Just 19 at the time, she was intimidated by the multiple law enforcement officers – all male. After nearly 15 hours of interrogation, she was coerced in providing a false confession.
She was convicted of first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery. This was possible under the “law of accountability” where a person can be found guilty of acts committed by others. Jennifer had no prior criminal record, and yet she was sentenced to 27 years in prison.
Her constructive earthquake culminated in June of 2021. Maintaining her innocence, Jennifer sought and received the assistance of the Illinois Innocence Project. With their successful efforts, Jennifer was finally released. Her mother had died while Jennifer was in prison. She is grateful to be reunited with her family, especially her father, whose health is deteriorating due to dementia; however, at this time, he still knows her.
Re-entry into family and community after prison life is difficult. Jennifer is blessed by family support, especially her sister Amanda. When I saw both of them a few weeks ago, I was inspired by Amanda’s presence and wisdom about what Jennifer needs.
Jennifer herself is also so very grateful to all who have helped her. She has employment, is eager to build a meaningful and productive life, and wants to be a positive force in society.
I don’t know about Jennifer’s faith life. However, what I see in her is goodness and of God.
I’m always amazed by exonerees’ lack of bitterness or anger. They have used the earthquake experiences in their lives to tear down any prisons that would keep them from being truly human and caring for others.
I stand in awe at what they have had to carry – and still do – and not in judgment about how they carry it.
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