UpFront with Mary Hendricks, 11/20/2016

Feast of Christ the King

November 20, 2016

Luke 23:35-43

A bunch of bullies surrounds Jesus in today’s Gospel. As Jesus hangs, dying on the cross, we hear, “You saved everyone else. Save yourself!” “Some king you are!” “You’re the chosen one? Yeah, right!”

Even the criminal being crucified next to Jesus heckles him: “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself, and save us, while you’re at it.”

But Jesus is being crucified between two criminals. The other, known as “The Good Thief,” is the more compassionate of the two. He chides the mouthy thief: “Don’t you have any fear of God? We belong here. He doesn’t.”

Let’s jump right in the middle of this scene. Three men are being crucified on a hill in Jerusalem by Roman soldiers. A gruesome way to die, crucifixion caused blood constriction, organ failure, and asphyxiation. They know they don’t have long to live, and, with their last breaths, they are having this serious conversation about being saved. One wants to take the easy way out, to get off the cross and get back to his life. And one wants mercy. Here’s how he asks for it: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

When the night is long and sleep eludes me, I cue up the Taize rendition of that beautiful line on the iPad. Over and over, the words and music lull me back to sleep. It’s a prayer that I can’t say enough as I beg for God’s mercy. I need it.

Catholic tradition tells us that St. Dismas is the one who breathlessly asked for mercy that Friday afternoon on Golgotha. We know he must have heard about Jesus because he knew that that Jesus was the Christ, the anointed one, and he knew he had done nothing to deserve this horrible condemnation. And even though Jesus was completely powerless at that moment, St. Dismas saw something more. He saw the saving power of Jesus. And he asked for it.

Actually, St. Dismas has caused no little discussion about his salvation at the last minute. Was he baptized? If he wasn’t, how did he go to heaven? Jesus, himself, says, “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” How fair is it that a possibly non-baptized person who lived a life of crime gains heaven seconds before he dies when others have lived their whole lives trying to be good? If this man lived a life of sin and was bad enough to be crucified for his actions and not able to do anything good before his death, how is it he could go straight to heaven?

The Catholic Church teaches that those, who through no fault of their own, don’t know Jesus but seek God with a sincere heart, can receive the baptism of desire. St. Dismas truly was penitent, so he received that baptism. The Paradise Jesus spoke of was Hades or Sheol, which we might call Purgatory. It wasn’t heaven, but a place or state of being where the dead would be before they could go to heaven. So, Jesus’ statement didn’t necessarily mean that St. Dismas went to heaven that very day.

All that aside, the point is this. We will never understand God’s mercy. Last minute confessions and baptisms are just as valid as infant baptisms and weekly confessions.

In other words, it’s never too late. No matter what we’ve done, no matter how sinfully out of control our lives have been, if we are penitent and ask for mercy we will receive it.

And we, like the Good Thief, can say, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

 

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