Last week we witnessed the inauguration of Pope
Francis and the enthronement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the first a
celebration of the universal Church, a great jamboree for all its simplicity,
the second a more local and parochial affair, in spite of the native dancers
and the bongos. When Christ came into the world he became incarnate in the womb
of a Virgin and was born in a stable and laid in a manger. When he came to die
for our salvation, indeed to save the whole of creation, he chose a Cross for
his throne, the shedding of his blood for his glorification. We should always
remember that the way of Christ is the way of the Cross and that he has called each
one of us to take up our cross every day and follow him.
"Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."
Only in St Luke do we find the conversation between the two criminals crucified
with Jesus and his reply to the good thief, "I promise you, today you will be
with me in paradise." We call them thieves, but the Gospel simply says
wrongdoers. Although most of us identify with the "good thief", you might be
surprised to learn that in many countries there is great devotion to the "bad
thief". In parts of Europe and Latin America there are even Holy Week
processions in his honour and people vie with one another to carry his statue
and pay for the band.
If we were honest, we would have to admit that there
is as much of the bad as of the good thief in each one of us. I think of the
number of times I have said or thought his very words, "If you are the Christ,
save me." It does help to acknowledge our anger and resentment, our doubt and
even our hatred of God. The psalms do it all the time. God prefers us to tell
him the truth when we pray, to say what we really feel and not to cover things
up with pious words. Prayer is often a burden because it is false or
make-believe. Yet at times, like the good thief, I have also cried out in
anguish, "Jesus, remember me." Did you know that this is the only place in the
Gospels where Jesus is addressed simply by his name? No one else calls him by
his name, not even his mother. There is, of course, a special intimacy in
suffering and death. That's when we get closest to others, even to strangers.
Then again, and this is something we mistakenly take
for granted, the good thief does not ask specifically to be forgiven; he only
asks to be remembered. We know that Christ came to forgive us our sins and to
reconcile us with the Father by dying on a Cross. Even so, it can often be presumption
to ask for forgiveness because we are not truly repentant. Yes, he does say,
"We are paying for what we did," but that is not the same as saying that he is
sorry or being repentant. "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,"
is one of the most perfect prayers there is. It expresses faith in Christ as
Saviour, but it also leaves him completely free to do for us as he sees best.
There should be no coercion in prayer, no telling God what to do, just the
request to be remembered. "I promise you," Jesus replies, "today you will be
with me in paradise."
But what did Jesus say to the bad thief? We won't know
the answer to that question until, through the merits of Christ's Passion, we
enter paradise ourselves. In the meantime we will have to take it as Gospel
that there was but one answer, one promise, that day and that both wrongdoers,
the good and the bad, crucified with Jesus, heard what Jesus said. There was to
be no repetition of the blasphemy, only a shared agony and death. As the end came, Jesus prayed to his heavenly
Father in the name of all three who died together that day, "Father, into your
hands I commend my spirit," a prayer of utter confidence and peace. On the
Cross, he also prayed for you and me.