The Gospel of the “Good Thief” today places us squarely on Calvary. I’ve always noticed as a priest that the numbers who attend Good Friday services are considerably higher than those who attend the Easter Vigil. Some say it is “Catholic guilt”! But I think it’s because the Cross and all it teaches touches our lives and experience more truly. The Resurrection is beyond our “ken.” Certainly, we hope for it and want it, but it eludes the grasp of our mortal humanity.
The Veneration of the Cross is arguably the most moving moment of Good Friday. We recognise the Cross as the price of our salvation. The Cross involves us, engages us, calls us into question. Without words or thoughts, we instinctively perceive that the seeming absurdity of the Cross somehow solves the puzzle of human life this side of eternity. The Word made flesh is crucified. As Word, he is silenced. As Explanation of reality, he is rejected. And yet, in that very crucifixion, silencing and rejection he gives meaning to the most fundamental problems of our daily lives and of our whole lives, as individuals and as communities.
The Cross reflects back to anyone who wants to see it the drama of human existence. What do you see on the Cross? You see a naked man. “Naked I came from my mother’s womb; naked I shall return.” Yes, we dress ourselves up to look good, and that’s fine and normal. We even dress ourselves up in death. But we are always conscious of our nakedness like Adam and Eve and of its strange connection with the feeling of shame. The Cross faces us with that truth and admonishes us not to forget it.
On the Cross, our body is vulnerable. Being fixed to the Cross, Jesus is almost telling us that we cannot escape our vulnerability. Most crucifixes hide the extent of the wounds which Jesus actually sustained, as if to spare us the sight of what human violence can do to human vulnerability. The most famous of his wounds is the open side, an external wound which reaches the heart on the inside. The wounds of human life which hurt most are the wounds of the heart, the pains of love refused, unrequited, denied, betrayed. Jesus was human in this sense, too: he suffered the emotional and psychological pains of rejection, betrayal, misunderstanding, humiliation. We are very much mistaken if we reduce his suffering to his bodily wounds.
The crucified Lord also reflects back to us our radical poverty as human beings. There is nothing we have that we have not received. The Lord has given, the Lord has taken back: blessed be the name of the Lord, says Job. Not only possessions, but our reputation is fragile. Remember the hosannas. Not long before Calvary, people were saying of Jesus that God had visited his people, that no-one spoke like this man, that never in Israel had been seen the likes of what Jesus did. All he hears now is sneering and jeering. He probably had to endure much worse, only the evangelist has spared us from hearing it.
The picture of Jesus on the Cross is very much one of the loneliness of our human condition, especially in sickness and in death. But loneliness afflicts us all in different ways and at different times of our lives. How many here live alone! How many who are married or live with others still experience loneliness! Loneliness is one of the effects of sin. Sin means division, alienation, isolation. We cannot be free of loneliness until we are free of sin, restored to full communion with God and each other. Attached to loneliness is abandonment and rejection. Jesus was abandoned by the vast majority of his friends and relatives. He experienced above all the abandonment of the Father, in those poignant and mysterious words of the psalm, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?”
We also see on the Cross the degradation of the human condition and our impotence to rescue ourselves from it. We are physically dust and ashes, water and chemicals. Being reminded of that truth would save us from intemperate bravado about who we humans are and what we can do. The lesson of humility keeps us within what is real.
But there are two facets of the human condition more than all others which the Cross places directly before our eyes.
The first is our sin. That crown of thorns on the head of Jesus means that our sins are not upon our own head, but on his. Every last “white lie”, every last dirty word, every last selfish thought, every sin from impatience to mass murder has fallen upon his head. The weight of it all crushes his skull, squeezes out like sweat the blood of his heart. When we look at him we can only weep as for an only son who through no fault of his own bears the faults of all. Ours were the sins he carried. Our minds fail to grasp the contradictions our hearts feel: we weep and yet we cannot but be glad that he has delivered us from weeping and the grinding of teeth. We wince at his wounds but yet experience the relief of the healing which those wounds have wrought for us. We cry, “No, Lord! Not such suffering!” And yet we also cry, “May the fruit of your suffering fall on me this night!” Our contradictions mirror the contradiction that God would die, that the divine would share the fate of the human, that the Holy One would “be sin” (St. Paul), that death would bring eternal life for all, that evil itself would be conquered by inflicting evil on God who alone is good.
The second is our mortality. We baulk at death. We relegate the thought of mortality to some future distant moment, to the back of our heads, to the mortuaries. But the Cross bare-facedly thrusts the memory of death, the fact of mortality before us. Mortality is like a disease we carry. Yes, it is good that we focus on life and on all that gives us life, but all life in this life is mortal. The Cross points us to a life beyond death, a life unmarked by mortality, beyond mortality’s reach. The mortality of Jesus and his act of death on the Cross are not because of his sin, but ours. His death sucks out of death the sting of sin and replaces it with the sweet balm of the Spirit. Death retains the same outward form, but its soul is no longer disobedience to God. By his obedience to the Father in eternal love, Jesus ejects sin from death and injects death with grace.
And it is at this point that there is a shift of gear from what the Cross tells us about our humanity to what it tells us about God. For the man Jesus is the Son of God.
The Cross tells us that God does not stand at a cold distance watching us squirm in our nakedness, vulnerability and all the other dramatic dimensions of our human condition. No! He takes them all on from a warm within. He truly lives and lives through each and all of them. He shows radical and total solidarity and compassion with us. We cannot say to him, “you don’t know what we go through”, for he does, more than we do ourselves.
But he goes much further. He not only lives what we live, but from inside he transforms it all. Death is no longer a tomb stone but a stepping stone. Suffering is no longer a curse of sin but, if lived in his love, can become a blessing of grace. All that the Cross faces us with as the tragedy of our human condition, it also offers to us as a path to glory if we accept in faith that the crucified is also the risen One.
And now the core. Why all this? What on earth or in heaven can be the reason? “No greater love a man can have than to give his life for his friends.” “This is the love I mean. Not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his only Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.” It is this that we intuit when we look to the Cross. It is this that leads young, old, crippled, healthy, fervent and lukewarm to kneel before the Cross and venerate it.
This is why he is our King. Since Jesus is King of the Cross, our natural fear of it can be driven out by his royal and victorious love. Many saints spoke of their love of the Cross. St. Paul said that in his daily life he was “crucified with Christ.” Our weakness would have us focus on the pain of the Cross, but our faith focuses us on the love of the Crucified. It was out of love for us that Jesus endured the Cross, showing that his love is not only stronger than all that the Cross can bring, but can transform it into love. The truth is that we cannot embrace Christ without also embracing the Cross, for his love is always cruciform. He has taken our crown and given us his own, his crown of life, love, truth, holiness and grace.
The Cross is therefore not so much a thing that stands before us: it is rather the very reality of who we are when all the layers are stripped away. It explains us to ourselves. The Cross reveals the reality of man to man.
The Cross also reflects back to the world these same truths since what’s true for each of us individually is true for all of us collectively. There is no social or political solution to the dramatic issues of humanity as a man-made alternative to the Cross. Only if aligned with the Cross and its King can any important human undertaking, small or great, bring true and lasting relief and solution to those issues. St. Paul is clear on the will of God the Father: all things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, are to be reconciled in Jesus who made peace for the whole of creation and for all time by his death on the Cross. Ideologies will always fail to achieve “final solutions” which do not in the end destroy the human being. Right thinking is only truly possible if it comes from right loving, and only the Cross of Christ can heal definitively the ravages of sin in the human heart.
So, it is always good, yea necessary, to come to the Cross, to hold the Cross, to stand before it and, as it were, to let it stand within us. Across the limits of time and space, it is good to join those who were there when Jesus hung there. By the powers of our imagination, we can bring to life the death of Jesus and become players in the tragic theatre which unfolded on Golgotha. Every true Christian is a Golgothite.
If Christ is our King, Golgotha is his throne-room, the Cross his throne. The lance is his sceptre, the thorns his crown. The nails are his jewels, his deep red blood his majestic robe. He is King of the Jews, but their leaders jeer at him. He is King of the Romans, but they mock him. He is King of the criminals beside him, but they are divided. He is King of the people watching him, but they are silent. He has come to save, but he is sneeringly jibed to save himself. Only the Good Thief, Dismas, wants him, his remembrance, his kingdom, his power to save. All the elders of Israel had come to David to anoint him king because God had chosen him. But on Golgotha, they came to scorn and murder David’s Son.
Dismas must have gone through a deep conversion process as he mysteriously came to know his companion from Nazareth on the Way of the Cross. Otherwise, he could not have defended and made his profession of faith in the Crucified. You can almost see the light of the Father shine with growing intensity in Dismas, rescuing him from the power of darkness. Alas, his companion along with the Jewish leaders and Roman soldiers, all remain in the darkness, tempting Jesus, “save yourself and us as well.” But Dismas rebukes his erstwhile companion in crime, and indeed all the others, for their lack of fear of God. In other words, he recognises Jesus as God. He says, “this man has done nothing wrong”: only God is sinless if himself. “We are paying for what we did” means that Dismas confesses his sin and accepts the justice of his punishment. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” With these words, Dismas appeals to the love and mercy of Jesus, but he also professes his faith in Jesus’ resurrection and in eternal life. “Today, I promise you, you will be with me in paradise.” Like balm to his aching soul, Jesus promises Dismas a share in the eternal covenant in that Paradise from which the first parents had been expelled. It was a promise fulfilled within the hour.
The glory of Christ the King is that we embrace the salvation and life he won for us upon the Cross. Not only Dismas, but all of us are called to be with him in Paradise on some fine “today.” On this today, then, let us allow the Cross to shine upon us and to shine out from within us. John Milton wrote in the 17th century the famous poem, “Paradise Lost” to explain humanity’s fall from grace. With our lives, let us write the sequel to that poem as we live out the Gospel of the Good Thief, the Gospel of “Paradise Regained.”
Praise to you, O Christ, King of eternal glory!