We’ve all heard of the great illusionist Harry Houdini who was a master magician as well as an amazing locksmith. He was probably the most famous escape artist in the world, and was very confident in his talents. He claimed that he could escape from any jail cell in the world in less than an hour.
True enough every time he was given this challenge, he accepted and did just as he promised. He was left alone in a locked cell and in a few short minutes he’d miraculously escape.
One time though, things didn’t go quite as planned. The story goes that a small town in England had built a new jail cell and was quite proud of it. “Come give us a try,” they said to Houdini, and he agreed.
He walked into the prison cell bristling with confidence. He had, after all, done this hundreds of times before. And he had tucked inside his belt a special lock pick he had designed. Once the jail cell was closed, he took off his coat, and set to work with his lock pick. Soon, however, he discovered that something was unusual about this particular lock.
For thirty minutes he worked and got nowhere. Slowly, his confidence disappeared. An hour passed, and he still couldn’t open the door. By now he was bathed in sweat and panting in exasperation, but still no open lock. He tried all his tricks but nothing worked.
After two hours and totally exhausted, Houdini literally collapsed against the door which suddenly swung open. It was then that he realized it really wasn’t locked in the first place. It was locked only in his mind.
Whether the story’s true or simply a legend surrounding Houdini’s fame, it does make an important point. We’ve all, at certain moments in our lives, found ourselves trapped in prison cells like Houdini’s. The doors aren’t really locked, but deep down inside, that’s exactly how we’ve felt.
A few years ago, I had the chance to journey with a young woman whose first marriage failed. She had married a very good young man, and they were very much in love. At some point though, things began to change. She became very jealous, controlling, disparaging, and at times, even violent towards him.
They had a child, but after six years of marriage, ended up separating and getting a church annulment. A couple of years later, she married her second husband, another good man who loved her very much and was happy to be the stepdad of her young child from her previous marriage. They had three more children together.
After a number of years though, her jealousy and controlling behavior resurfaced; and the constant putdowns her husband had to go through began to cause tremendous strain on their marriage, not to mention the fact that she once again became rather violent.
This time, however, she began to notice the pattern. And because she now had four kids and did in fact love her husband, she decided to seek advice as well as spiritual and emotional guidance. She came to me saying: “Father, I love my family. I don’t want to fail again. But I don’t know what to do. I simply don’t understand what’s going on. Please help me”.
I contacted a friend who’s a family counselor and sent her to him, meanwhile, she would come and talk to me about her family, her faith, her struggles, and the progress of her counseling sessions.
At one point, she disclosed that as a child, her mother had been physically and verbally abusive to her, and for some reason, she found it very hard not only to forgive her mother, but to also move on. She didn’t know how.
Several summers ago, she had the chance to visit her grandmother’s sister who was still alive but quite ill. She decided she wanted to know more about her mother’s family. It was then that she learned that her grandmother too suffered the same fate with her great-grandmother, and the abuse she experienced from her mom was the same abuse her mom in turn suffered from her grandmother.
“It was a vicious cycle, Father”, she said to me. “For the first time, I understood where my mom was coming from. I still have to work on being able to forgive her and move on. But I now have some light. I know why it happened to her, and I know why it happened to me. And you know what, Father. I have decided. It won’t happen again, not to my daughters, not to my family. The pain stops with me.”
“The pain stops with me”. Often, in our meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus, our minds focus on God’s immense love for us; and that is good. But we must not forget that the image of Christ on the cross is also telling us something more. The suffering and death of Jesus isn’t only a reminder of God’s love, it also represents a profound appeal to us: “Do not let this happen again. Do what you can to put an end to each other’s suffering, say ‘no more’ to the cycle of pain; ease one another’s burdens”.
“The pain stops with me”. With that resolution, this wounded and broken woman, this abused daughter, this wife and mother seeking healing and wholeness, who had for so long been imprisoned by the wounds of her past, finally had her own Easter; like Jesus she escaped from her tomb. The day she resolved that her pain would not be visited upon her children, was her own Resurrection Sunday, the day when she finally burst forth from the prison that had kept her locked up, frozen, suffering, and sadly, inflicting the same pain and suffering on others.
Today, she is a happily married wife and mother. I spent a couple hours with her family a few years ago. I’ve never seen a happier couple. To her daughters, she was the kindest mom.
As I sat there watching her interaction with her kids, I couldn’t help but say to myself, “If only these kids knew the pain their mother had to go through; and how lucky they are…”
We all have our tombs and prisons that lock us in. Perhaps it’s a prison of anger or resentment, addiction or depression, failure or disappointment or a physical weakness we bear. Perhaps it’s a tomb of powerlessness because someone we love is ill and we sense their life slipping away. Or our tomb could be grief over the loss of someone we love, and the pain feels like it would never go away. Possibly our prison, our tomb, is a loneliness that’s like a thirst that can’t seem to be quenched.
On this night, when Jesus burst forth from the tomb that had kept him for three days and three nights, we find the fulfillment of our hope that we too can leave behind the many tombs and prisons that have kept us locked in. In Christ who is Risen, no tomb can contain us. In him who is Risen, we can escape anything, even the deepest, darkest, and most painful prisons life has imposed on us.
On this night, Christ forever broke the chains of death, despair and entrapment. Freed from his own tomb he now commands us to come forth and leave our own tombs. Christ has set us free, and he wants us to know that his power is greater than our weakness and despair, his love greater than any frustration, his light greater than our darkness, his promise greater than our pain, and the life he offers us, is greater than death itself.
This Easter, Jesus who is Risen, invites each one of us to consider what tombs, what prisons still hold us back or hold us in. And he calls on each one of us to trust that he can set us free—if we but let him, for his Resurrection is our Resurrection, his victory is our victory, his Easter is our Easter.
With Saint Paul, we can say with all confidence: “With Christ, I can do anything”. And with the Risen Christ himself we can proclaim: “I have conquered the world”.