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Christ the King Cycle C (2)
I want to introduce you today to a man whom we would not want for a friend. That’s different. I do not introduce you to people like this very often, but today we are going to pretend that we are listening to a thief. This is not an ordinary thief, but a very special thief. This is the thief who died on a cross beside Jesus when Jesus was crucified. Church tradition tells us his name is Dismas and because scripture tells us he is in heaven we call him Saint Dismas. Will you now please pretend that the thief is here, and that he is ready to speak to you?
[Raise the mask.] I am a thief. If you had lived next door to me, you would not have liked me. But I don’t care, or at least I didn’t care then. I took whatever I wanted from anybody when I wanted to. If you had something I wanted, I would wait until you went away, or when you were not looking, and then I would take it. I was that way until the day I died. I want you to know that I changed at the last minute and I mean the very last minute.
The first time I saw Jesus, I was standing on a hill with my hands tied behind my back. Jesus was walking and sometimes stumbling up the hill. Another man was carrying his cross. We knew that he was supposed to die with us, but I had never seen him before. I say “us” because I was not the only thief who was supposed to die. There was another one. We had done many things which were against the law, and we knew that if we were ever caught, we would be crucified.
I remember how bad it was waiting for Jesus to come up the hill. The soldiers called Jesus “crazy.” They laughed and said that some people called this poor man a king. Some even said that he was the Savior, and the Son of God. I wondered what kind of a man this was, but most of all I was afraid of dying. When Jesus arrived, he looked awful. His back was bloody, he had a crown of thorns on his head, and the people were screaming at him like animals. I was afraid for myself, and I felt extra sorry for him.
Shortly after Jesus arrived, they put me on my cross. I will never forget the pain. There is nothing in the world that hurts as much as when you are being crucified. I forgot about Jesus because I hurt so much. I must have passed out because I do not remember seeing them lift Jesus up in the air on his cross. The next time I remember seeing Jesus, he was hanging on his cross between me and the other thief, and the thief was shouting at Jesus. He said, “Prove that you are the Savior, help yourself and me down from the cross.” Then he began to curse at Jesus and say the most terrible things you have ever heard.
I looked at Jesus, and I knew that he was different. He was not like us now, and he was never like us. He looked at the other thief and gave him a sign of love and hope. But the thief screamed more curses, so many that I had to stop him. I told the thief to be quiet. I told Jesus that we were different and I hoped he would remember me not as a thief, but as a man who was dying beside him that day. Jesus looked at me and told me that I should remember this, “Today, you will be with me in God’s Kingdom.” I felt forgiven and loved for one of the few times in my life. Jesus was the Lord. He did forgive, and he understood me.
I didn’t stop hurting. I even died on the cross that day. Jesus died first, but I will never forget how much I loved him. I gave my life to Jesus, and I tell everyone I can how much he means to me. Dying on Calvary was awful, but it was the best thing that ever happened to me. That’s where I met Jesus and it is the day that I became a follower of Christ.
[Remove the mask.] That was the way that the thief who followed Jesus wanted you to remember him. I hope that you will remember him and his story for a long time. All of us need to be forgiven for our sins and this man certainly was forgiven for his on the day he died. He loved Jesus and Jesus loved him. Jesus is like your parents. They love you no matter how bad you are and they are always willing to forgive if you are really sorry. (This doesn’t stop you from being punished but it helps the relationship of love.)
“Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation?” Those words from the Good Thief, whom we call Dismas, bother me. How could Dismas say that God is dying with them? I could perhaps see his line of thought if Dismas were a pagan. The pagan gods of Greece and Rome had all sorts of human traits and failings. Their gods could be punished, as some were in their myths. But Dismas wasn’t a pagan. He was a Hebrew. And he didn’t say “a god” is dying with them. He said God. Why would Dismas consider that God could be condemned?
The answer might be found in a terrible movement from the last century. In 1966 Time Magazine published a cover story that asked, “Is God Dead?” This blasphemous article suggested that modern man no longer needed God, so therefore, he is dead. They weren’t original, the 19th century philosopher, Frederich Nietsche, said this in his book Thus Spoke Zarathustra. His theories led to Nazism. Those who claimed that God was dead did so because they didn’t need him. He was no longer relevant to them. They had the world very well in control without having to be concerned with the presence of God.
Perhaps, Dismas could see through the hypocrisy of the Temple priests and leaders of the Jewish people, who really didn’t want God imposing himself on the nice neat order of things they had established for themselves. They had things under control. They certainly didn’t want a Messiah coming who would question their lifestyle. Jesus did exactly that. They didn’t need this. They didn’t need him. So he was condemned to death.
Here in the 21st century only a few people will say that God is dead, but many people act as though He is dead. They think that they don’t need Him. They certainly don’t want Him in their lives. They have everything under control, or so they think. And so they put God to death, attacking His Presence in the social structures of the world. Freedom of religion has been reduced to freedom from religion, and the Christmas Season has become the winter holidays.
When we push God aside, keep him out of our lives, or at least parts of our lives, we are joining those who tried to put Him to death. If we do this enough, we, in our minds, will no longer consider the actions of a living God in the world or in our lives. Those who think they don’t need God are joining the people who condemned Jesus to death.
Jesus did not deserve to die. Dismas was very clear in stating from his cross that Jesus is an innocent man. Dismas also shouts out to the other criminal, that the two of them are certainly guilty and were suffering for their crimes. None of us are completely innocent. We are all dependent on the Mercy of God. Jesus did not need mercy from His Father. He was beautifully innocent. The one who was suspended on a cross for us, hanging between heaven and earth is the one whose death redeems us from the bondage of sin.
Today’s gospel presents this question: with whom do we identify? Do we identify with Dismas who recognized Jesus’ innocence, and who realized that Jesus’ death could be his passage to heaven, or do we identify with those who have no need for God and removed him from their lives, ignoring His presence?
Dismas looked at Jesus and said, “Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Dismas saw that he was being crucified next to the ruler of the spiritual kingdom. He realized that Jesus was the King of Kings. The spiritual is real. Jesus is Son of God; yet is one of us. We are members of His spiritual kingdom.
This changes everything. The way that we approach life. The ultimate goal of our lives. Our plan to achieve this goal. Everything changes because we are members of the spiritual kingdom. We have experienced the love of Jesus. We need to live for Christ. We need to spread this love to others. We cannot be vengeful. We cannot be people of hate. We cannot allow or support any form of prejudice or bigotry. We are the people of Jesus Christ. We cannot join those who live in a way that says, “We don’t need God.”
We do need God. And we love needing Him. We want the world to know that Jesus is our King. We need to proclaim to others with our lives, “Jesus is your king too.”
Jesus, remember us when you come into your kingdom
Christ the King Cycle C (1)
The word “smear” can refer to how much cream cheese one puts on a bagel, but, more often, it refers to the way we demean other people by our words. Smearing has long been part of American political life. In 1884 James G. Blaine attacked Democrats as the party of Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion. But it backfired; so angry were Catholics at this attack, they turn out and voted for Grover Cleveland to be president. Today smear seems to be our most popular discourse; we can imply, without evidence, that someone is a crook, a traitor, or weak in mind and character. Smearing has made public conversation almost impossible. One side says “libtards” and the response smears with “Nazis.”
Yet “smear” is a very accurate word because smearing covers or hides something. And smearing a person is a way to make him or her almost disappear. We don’t see that person anymore; we see the slogan and the imputed defects. Smearing is a way to demean someone and help make them vanish.
On this feast of Christ the King, this is exactly what we see going on. For the Roman practice of crucifixion was a carefully constructed method to debase and demean a person. It was not only the torture that people endured, sometimes for days; it was the shame that was hurled at them by anyone who passed by. If the Romans could make a leader disappear then maybe other troublemakers would hide themselves and become invisible too.
The Crucifixion shows us how the shaming worked, from the leaders who manipulated the death of Jesus, to the soldiers who shamed the victims as part of their job, to the passers-by shouting insults, even to someone dying with Jesus. “Aren’t you the Christ? Then save yourself and save us.” So shouts one rebel crucified with Jesus, parroting the general barrage hurled at Jesus.
But the other rebel manages to break through the smear. He first of all sees the innocence of Jesus. “We’re getting what we deserve, but what did this man do?” And this allows him to go even further, to see Jesus even more clearly: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He not only calls Jesus by his name, but he implicitly acknowledges the Kingdom to which Jesus committed his life. He sees, amid all the scorn thrown at Jesus, the thread of redemption that smears ultimately cannot hide.
As an aside: Remember me then is a very powerful prayer. It got Dismas into heaven. We should in prayer always ask our Lord to remember ourselves and those dear to us living and deceased.
This feast provides us an opportunity to try to see Jesus more clearly ourselves. Jesus is proclaimed a King. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925, less than 100 years ago, as a comment on the crisis in government and leadership he sensed around the world. Just a few years earlier, World War I had ended, with all its destruction, and Russia had just adopted atheistic Communism in 1917.
But we see Jesus as a different kind of leader. Not a king or president like anyone else, Jesus’ Kingship is tied to the Kingdom that he came to inaugurate. His Kingship is not based on money, power, or politics. It is based on the vision of a redeemed humanity finally coming to its fullness under the grace and mercy of God. This is true power: mercy in the face of scorn, and indomitable love in the face hate. This is exactly what Jesus shows in his exchange with the repentant rebel, or the Good Thief, as we call him.
Who knows what will break through our terribly destructive politics? But at least we Catholics and Christians have an alternative to the cynicism that pervades our public space. We have a King who promises Paradise to one who saw only destruction and death. If that man’s halting faith can gain so much for him, what can our robust faith gain for us, and even for our world?