During the traditional Chinese festivities, it is customary for Chinese families to visit their ancestral tombs and pay respect to their deceased family members. This ritual is called “Baai Saan” in Cantonese, and it may include cleaning the graves, laying out food offerings and burning incense sticks and “ghost money.”
Family members also take the opportunity to go and visit relatives detained in prison to bring them some food and pocket money. This act of kindness, however, often leaves a bitter aftertaste. “They come to visit us in the same days they go to visit the ancestral graves. Their visit is a “Baai Saan” too; we are like living dead,” groaned one inmate.
This is sad but true, especially after reading the Risen Christ’s meeting with His disciples (John 20:19-23) at a meeting of a male prison group (where there is only one non-Christian). After Jesus’ crucifixion, we find the disciples locked in a dark room, isolated from the rest of the world. Besides being afraid, the disciples felt their failure as friends and the end of their dreams of having a meaningful life. In other words, that room was like a tomb, and they felt like they were dead.
“Exactly as we feel here in prison!” one of the inmates exclaimed. Prisoners are very familiar with the feeling of shame, their criminal record being an indelible mark on their personal history. “People will always look at us as criminals,” they said, “no new beginning is possible.”
“Yet, Jesus’ self-giving changed the marks of shame, the wounds of a crucified criminal into the symbols of a greater love: forgiveness of sinners, mercy for all. This love defeated evil and death; this love is stronger than our personal failures. Only He can free us from the prison/tomb of our past mistakes,” I replied.
Making a parallel with the creation story of Genesis, we saw how new life came into the apostles after Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit into them: they realized that Jesus’ sacrifice overcame their collective and personal shame. They became ready to move on both at a personal and communal level. Jesus’ mercy and reconciliation is what sets Christianity in motion towards world mission and a new future.
As the hymn says: “We who once were dead/ now live, fully knowing / Jesus as our head. Life is overflowing / when He breaks the bread. /We were lost in night, /but You sought and found us. / Give us strength to fight; /death is all around us. /Jesus, be our light… we shall then remain / living; death defying, /we shall rise again.”