Statement by Bishop Sullivan on the Death Penalty, December 1992
Tidings: The Crib, the Cross, the Chair
by Bishop Walter F. Sullivan
The Catholic Virginian, December 21, 1992, Page 7
I begin this Tidings by wishing all the members of our diocesan family a blessed and grace-filled Christmas. Christmas reminds us of the importance of family life, since God became one with us, Emmanuel, through a Galilean family. Everything Jesus did throughout his earthly life was related to and conditioned by the times in which he lived. Correspondingly, for each of us Christmas, 1992' has a situation-related meaning. The challenge for us is to take the timeless message of Christmas and apply it to the here and now.
Christmas has a special place in our hearts. We celebrate in story and hymns God's great gift of the Word made Flesh. At Christmas God comes to us in the mystery we call Incarnation. God bridges the distance between heaven and earth; God takes up residence, pitches a tent, dwells in our midst. God affects a new lasting presence, because Jesus, who lives forever, is uniquely "God with us."
Fit us to be
In the Christ-child "God became what we are to fit us to be what God is," St. Athanasius says, speaking for the unbroken Christian tradition.
I like to be sentimental at Christmas. I like the sending and receiving of Christmas cards, gift-giving, decorated trees, carols: practices which lift our spirits at a time that we look for a reason to hope, to believe in God and in ourselves, to love generously because of God's wildly extravagant love of us.
Christmas is rich not only in symbol but in meaning. We believe in a God who is willing to become vulnerable, to be dependent on others for survival, to take a chance on entrusting the divine mission to our world to us. Jesus, the Christ-child, reveals God's boundless love and generosity. He tells us of God's unconditional acceptance. God, by taking on human flesh, reveals the dignity of every human person. Each of us is precious in spite of ourselves, our shortcomings, sins and failures.
Jesus also comes to demonstrate what it means to be God-like, to act and live as God wants us to. God walked this earth in the person of Jesus, not just in our place or to assume our responsibilities, but to journey with us, accompany us, to give our lives meaning. In meditation before the crib we ask for the courage to open ourselves to the God of life and for the grace to "come after" Jesus so that he may truly be Emmanuel, God with us, Jesus born of us at Christmas '92.
The crib is a road marker on the way that leads to the cross. We do not like to think of the cross at Christmas time, even though we know that Jesus lived in the shadow of the cross. In obedience to the one he called Abba, Jesus died ignominiously on the cross. We seek to forget our troubles at Christmas, to cover them with tinsel. Because we do, the day after Christmas is often a "downer." Life with its ambiguities can't be put on hold for long, though.
Jesus in his ministry was troubled by the violence inflicted on the poor, the outcast, sinners and even the criminals. He got in trouble with the authorities when he began to forgive people, to assure them of God's mercy, to heal the sick, to restore some to life. In doing so, by opposing violence and living a life of non-violence, Jesus forfeited his own life.
There is a close parallel between the cross and the crib. Before the crib, all of us are equal. Jesus offered his life on the cross for all, without exception. As we rejoice in the crib so too we must embrace the cross which leads through death to resurrection.
This Christmas will have added meaning for me because on Dec. 101 witnessed an execution, that of Timothy Bunch. I had known Timothy for the 10 years he had been on Death Row. He asked me to accompany him to the electric chair. I went as a priest to give Timothy the last sacraments of the church. After Timothy received holy viaticum, I accompanied him to the chair. The execution was horrifying. A group of people calmly watched as a human life was deliberately and violently ended. For me the electric chair stands in direct contradiction to what we affirm and celebrate at Christmas. God came to proclaim the sacredness of all life, even the lives of sinners and murderers. God came to teach us the meaning of mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation.
On Dec. 10 Timothy Bunch lost his life. What was horrible to me was not just what happened to Timothy, but what an execution does to you and me. By advocating or condoning acts of violence like the one I witnessed, we become less human and less compassionate. We will never eliminate evil, I am convinced, by doing evil ourselves.
The crib, the cross, the chair are interconnected. The crib stands for life, the cross and the chair stand for death. Jesus came to save us from ourselves, to call us to a whole new way of being and to gift others as we have been gifted by a loving extravagant God. I pray for all members of our diocesan family, that the Christ-child who accepted our humanity will lead us closer to the mystery of the God-head.
I wish you and yours a blessed and happy Christmas.