When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews." One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise." Luke 23:33-43
About This Week's Prompts for Personal Meditation
The "image of the invisible" (Col. 1:15) is sheer horror. How is it possible to watch a man tortured to death and manage at the same time to gaze through into the Kingdom of God? Nothing accentuates the tension between temporal and eternal as dramatically as the image of the cross.
Even death finds Jesus in the company of sinners. But the "Good Thief," named Dismas by tradition, sees through the horror into the kingdom. "Jesus, remember me when you come into the Kingdom." Jesus replies, "Today you will be with me in Paradise."
The Christian Year ends firmly in the temporal realm, but with a faint sense of light and of paradise behind reality (Meditation One). In our own times of extremity we can turn toward Christ and pray with Dismas, opening ourselves to eternal Love (Meditation Two). But the kingdom is not something we wait around for after death - as we open ourselves to grace, we offer our own self-sacrifice, daring, and courage to the now of this suffering world (Meditation Three).
Meditation One (Introit) Temporal and Eternal
There is a dialectic in Christian sacred art which impels it to stress, from time to time, now the eternal, and now the temporal elements in the Divine drama. The crucifix displays in one period the everlasting Son reigning from the tree; in another, the human Jesus disfigured with blood and grief.
-Dorothy L. Sayers 1893-1957 The Man Born to be King: A Play Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ "Today you will be with me in Paradise," Jesus promises the thief, but "today" in Luke's Gospel is not merely a twenty-four-hour interval, but the moment when God's salvation fractures time (cf. 2:11, 4:21; 5:26; 19:19). Here, at the end of the Christian year, we might say of this final reading from Luke that the leaders, soldiers, and first thief all live in ordinary time, where the powers of violence determine events, and death is the last word; but the second thief lives already in the reign of Christ. If we can see this, we might also see- as thick darkness falls over this sad scene (v.44) - a far, faint light rising from the dawning of this realm, a place as calm and refreshing as the garden called paradise. -Patrick J. Willson Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C Volume 4, p.337
Chrst Carrying the Cross, Hieronymus Bosch, 1480's, In the foreground the Good Thief makes a confession while the Bad Thief derides him.
Lord Christ, when first thou cam'st to earth, upon a cross they bound thee,/ and mocked thy saving kingship then by thorns with which they crowned thee:/ and still our wrongs may weave thee now new thorns to pierce that steady brow,/ and robe of sorrow round thee.
O aweful Love, which found no room in life where sin denied thee,/ and, doomed to death, must bring to doom the powers which crucified thee,/ till not a stone was left on stone, and all those nations; pride, o'er-thrown,/ went down to dust beside thee!
New advent of the love of Christ, shall we again refuse thee,/ till in the night of hate and war we perish as we lose thee?/ From old unfaith our souls release to seek the kingdom of thy peace,/ by which alone we choose thee.
O wounded hands of Jesus, build in us thy new creation;/ our pride is dust, our vaunt is stilled, we wait thy revelation:/ O love that triumphs over loss, we bring out hearts before thy cross, /to finish thy salvation.
-Walter Russell Bowie (1882-1969)
Icon of the Second Coming of Christ, c. 1700 Below the circle is the throne of Abraham, with Dismas on the right.
The Good Thief at the Gate of Heaven, Last Judgement, Detail, Italian Mosaic, 13th century
Meditation Two (Insight) Image of the Invisible
Look at the thief being crucified with Christ. He has nothing going for him. He has no power, no wealth, no greatness of his own to recommend him to the King. He is just dying in his sins on the cross. But as he is dying, he turns his suffering to Christ and opens himself. Remember me, Lord, when you come into your kingdom. And Christ replies, Today you will be with me, the King, in heaven. Remember us too, Lord, in your world. Draw us to the inner circle of the real King. -Eleonore Stump The Center for Liturgy Website (St. Louis University)
The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise in a single moment, O Lord. By the wood of thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.
The Wise Thief Slavonic Church Hymn
Meditation Three (Integration) On Earth as in Heaven
Jesus' messianic proclamation centers on his interpretation of the tradition of a coming Reign of God. He does not evoke the hope for the Davidic Messiah. Jesus seems to express a radicalized view of the concept of a coming Reign of God as a time of the vindication of the poor and the oppressed. Jesus' vision of the Kingdom is neither nationalistic nor other-worldly. The coming Reign of God is expected to happen on earth, as the Lord's Prayer makes evident (God's Kingdom come, God's will be done on earth). It is a time when structures of domination and subjugation have been overcome, when the basic human needs are met (daily bread), when all dwell in harmony with God and each other (not led into temptation but delivered from evil). -Rosemary Radford Ruether Sexism and God-Talk, quoted from Gail Ramshaw's Treasures Old and New: Images in the Lectionary
...They did not know, as we do now, though empires rise and fall, your Kingdom shall not cease to grow til love embraces all.
-F. Pratt Green 1903-2000 Hymnal 1982
The Last Word
O world invisible, we view thee, O world intangible, we touch thee, O world unknowable, we know thee, Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!
-Francis Thompson 1859-1907 Kingdom of God (first verse)
This week marks not only the end of the Christian Year, but it is the celebration of Jesus, triumphant, coming into his kingdom. He is Christ Pantocrator - Sustainer of the World, Christ in Glory - enthroned upon the heavens. But next week, on the first Sunday of Advent, with a clash of metaphors the church also looks to the sky to watch for the Son of Man coming in clouds to judge the world at the end of time.
Along with the end times, Dismas haunts me this time of year - Dismas, the “good thief” who recognizes Jesus as King in those last hours of torture upon the cross. Bloody, exposed bone and muscle ripped open from scourging, naked, gasping for breath as his lungs fill with fluid, dying in unspeakable pain from every tortured nerve in his body, he turns his head toward the similarly dying Jesus. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”A cynic might say that Dismas has nothing to lose by such a request besides precious air in his lungs. But this is no hedging of bets. Dismas sees through the horror of the cross into the realm of Christ and the kingdom's throne. And Jesus manages to gasp out these words: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Dismas! In all this chaos between the end of Ordinary time and the beginning of the end of time, this minor, vulnerable voice in the drama stands out for me. With his last breath, he asks Jesus to remember him, and at that moment, no matter what he has done in his life - his crimes, troubles, regrets, tragedies, blasphemies - disappear, and he is Christ's own forever.
In art, you see Dismas waiting outside the jaws of hell while Jesus yanks Adam and Eve through the gates, others waiting behind them to be released from their long imprisonment. Locks, chains, bolts, keys lie broken on the ground. There is Dismas, holding a cross, observing the radical liberation his companion in death inaugurates in these first liminal hours of the Kingdom reaching into the realm of the dead. This image, prayed again and again, becomes real for me. And so I pray:
In the chaos of life, in my sins, in the end times, Jesus, King of Glory, remember me!
Dismas (left, with cross) in the Bosom of Abraham, Iconostasis 16th century Novgorod School