A lynching took place in Maysville, Kentucky in 1889. Over a thousand people traveled to witness the murder of a man condemned without a trial. Prior to burning him alive, men chained him to a tree and slashed his skin with knives. It was but one of eleven lynchings in Kentucky that day.
I was once assigned to parish near Maysville and offered Mass in the Maysville church numerous times. Before reading, A Shot in the Moonlight by Ben Montgomery, I was unaware of the physical proximity of this horrific event. I was also blithely unaware of the congruent brutality between lynching and crucifixion.
After closing that book, the memory of the Masses I offered inside Maysville’s St. Patrick Church carried me to Calvary where, in the collision of two executions, divine salvation struck like lightning, illuminating thunderheads of human depravity.
There is an alchemy that transpires when biblical narratives overlap our own. The inspired words convey more than knowledge and instruction. They contain power to convey worshippers to the frontier of faith, liminal places where things of earth appear familiar—yet transformed—in the clarity of eternal Light.
Consequently, Catholic tradition honors the potency of physical places to evoke experiences of the Divine Presence. Such places need not be designated as sacred, indeed, often they are the epitome of the profane as evidenced in the practice of praying at abortion clinics or reciting the Stations of the Cross in front of courthouses, food pantries and women’s shelters. In such locations, the very earth cries out “Hosanna!” at the approach of the King.
Even at jails.
A few weeks after reading A Shot in the Moonlight, pandemic restrictions were lifted in my region, this meant that I could resumed pastoral visitations at the local correctional facility. The first visit in over a year took place on Good Friday.
Like the overlap between the crucifixion on Calvary and the lynching in Maysville, pondering the Passion in the presence of inmates shed new light on the ancient narrative. In this instance, the jailhouse location highlighted Christ’s final conversation which took place with a convict. Behind metal doors and walls of block, the walls of time fell away:
I pulled a gun.
I stabbed a woman.
I killed a man.
I raped a child.
I deserve to die.
I want to die.
Later that day, at the three o’clock hour, I am in church, leading the Liturgy of the Lord’s Passion. As inside the jail, an inner vision begins to unfold. During the procession to the Cross, shoes and work boots turn into jailhouse clogs; trousers and shirts transform into striped uniforms. My chasuble, once red, becomes a linen sheet that reeks of sweat.
We are bound in chains. Thunder rumbles. We hear a voice:
We bow our heads. We touch the wood. We are set free.