This prison had no gates. It didn't need them. You could call it an open prison. Nor was it even a building in the proper sense. “Where’s the catch?” I hear you say. The catch is that it was dug out of solid rock, and the opening was at the top, twenty feet above the reach of the tallest man. Through that narrow hole the prisoner was lowered by a rope into the dark and squalid interior. If the very thought of it is terrible, and the sight of it makes your flesh creep, there can be no words to describe the experience of being imprisoned there.
Today you can enter the prison by a staircase. But why, you ask, would anyone want to go there? Why, because it was the prison where Jesus was held the night before his execution.
Inside that dark pit today (there are lights now) you can read on the wall the words of Psalm 87. Never was a psalm more appropriate to a place. Jesus, who certainly knew all the psalms by heart, must have prayed that psalm over and over on that terrible night. Earlier in the evening all his friends had fled; and in the courtyard just above, Peter had denied all knowledge of him. He was alone in the dark and condemned to crucifixion.
Lord my God, I call for help by day,
I cry at night before you...
For my soul is filled with evils,
my life is on the brink of the grave,
I am reckoned as one in the tomb,
I have reached the end of my strength,
like one alone among the dead,
like the slain lying in their graves,
like those you remember no more
cut off as they are from your hand.
You have laid me in the depths of the tomb,
in places that are dark, in the depths...
You have taken away my friends
and made me hateful in their sight.
Imprisoned, I cannot escape,
my eyes are sunken with grief....
To you I stretch out my hands....
Lord, why do you reject me?
Why do you hide your face...?
Friend and neighbour you have taken away:
my one companion is darkness.
To stand there, even today, is to know faith as a necessity. The reality of Jesus' suffering bears down on you with overwhelming force. As your body cannot escape through those rock walls, neither can your mind evade the reality of what lies before you. It is a sobering thing to be put in prison, even for ten minutes, with the truth.
But there is now a stairs, as I said. When you come up from there, you know that you can never again play the sophisticate, you cannot have a shallow and superior attitude to faith and to believers. Faith has deep roots underground; Jesus' human spirit agonised there during an interminable night. When you emerge you also know something else, equally compelling: that you can never again be indifferent to the countless ways in which human beings are imprisoned by hatred, ignorance and addiction, by a shallow popular culture (bred on capitalism) that has no love for anything, by exploitation of every kind, by illness, broken relationships and betrayal....
Every Friday night, the Prayer of the Church includes this psalm 87. It is prayed not only by priests and religious but by an increasing number of lay people. Through all these the Church carries again in its heart the memory of Christ’s imprisonment, and the imprisonment of all his brothers and sisters throughout the ages and throughout the earth.
(from I Remember Your Name in the Night: Thinking about Death, by Donagh O’Shea (Dominican Publications, and Twenty-Third Publications, 1997)