Saturday, February 28, 2004

Are We Good Thieves or Bad Thieves?

Last night was the first Friday of Lent but, for me, it was like no other. As I wrote yesterday, the movie about which everyone is talking, The Passion of the Christ, is more than a movie. It is best described as a living, "moving" meditation on what Our Lord willingly endured to redeem us.

I know that I am not alone when I say that meditating upon the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary will never be the same for me. I again "see" Our Lord in the Garden, I see Satan tempting Him (and asking this Man who keeps appealing to the Father, "Who are you?"), I "see" that most terrible Scourging, the incalculable cruelty of the Crown of Thorns, the painful exhaustion in carrying the Cross, the Lord crawling to that Cross and stretching Himself upon It...

It was no different when our parish priest led The Stations of the Cross last night.

Sometime in the late hours, the thought came to me that those who are making the outrageous statements against this moving meditation, The Passion of the Christ, as well as those who criticize Mel Gibson's movie with the most trivial, quibbling remarks, are no different that those who refused to see who He truly was, who lied in the High Priest's kangaroo court, or who screamed 2,000 years ago, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!"

And even worse, there were those who were not moved to pity after seeing Our Lord mercilessly scourged, almost to death, and those who wanted him permanently removed still demanded not only His death, but a criminal's death by His Crucifixion.

Just like you and me, all those who have seen the movie have also been offered the opportunity to remember their Savior's sufferings. The Holy Ghost teaches, "Forget not the kindness of thy Surety, for He hath given His life for thee."

As the book, Meditation on the Passion, reminds us: "The Passion of Jesus Christ is the surest means of kindling love...We see in His Sacred Passion what the forgiveness of our sins cost Him, and how much He has forgiven us. We see how His love was so great that He suffered, not for His friends alone, but for sinners; for those who neglected, outraged, and insulted Him, that He might win them to God. Then how can we fail to love Him, who loved us and gave Himself for us? Meditation on Jesus' suffering is a subject well calculated to hearten and encourage us; to make us ashamed of our moral weakness and spiritual cowardice in the past; to stir us up in high aspirations, and help us to set before ourselves noble ideals in the future." (p. 17)

Those of us who can respond to The Passion of the Christ with any criticism other than the self-criticism, "I am guilty," lack what My Imitation of Christ calls "compunction of heart."

Those criticizers, may God forgive them, need a few responses from Catholics. What should those responses be? The Catholic response must be what Our Lord expects of us:

Forgiveness, prayer and sacrifice for them, our fellow sinners.

Let us always remember that Our Lord interceded with Our Father in Heaven for every person on earth - those that are, those that were, and those that are yet to be born.

Let us always remember that He interceded for all sinners, each of us who, to our great shame, have - at one time or another - mercilessly scourged Him, spat in His face, tore at His hair, ripped open His skin, mocked Him, and who showed Him not one ounce of pity: "Father, forgive them; they know not what they do."

And as we saw in The Passion of the Christ, Our Lord takes this abuse while pouring out His grace, until the time of grace in our own lives is over. But even grace is not enough.

We must accept each grace as it comes to us and use it as God intended. We don't "see" graces, and we don't hear least, not the way we expect. But they make themselves known.

We clearly saw these truths about grace with the actions of the Good Thief and the Bad Thief. While dying, there was one Thief who acknowledged his sins, who repented and who confessed. But there was one who mocked God and dared to question Him to His face! To the Unrepentant Thief's accusations, Our Lord said nothing. He seemingly did not hear, but He did. He did not respond but He waited...just as He still waits for sinners to come to Him. And we begin to understand when the Holy Scriptures tell us that Our Lord is "long-suffering"! And so the dying Lord waited...but for what?

The Lord on the Cross, whose very Presence is Grace, was waiting for the reaction of free will. And there was a good response, but it came only from the Good Thief.

Although also suffering great pain, the Good Thief, which Tradition names Dismas, was both alarmed and outraged by his former friend's mocking of Christ and asked in tortured breaths, "Don't you fear God?" And he went on. He declared the innocence of Christ while confessing their collective guilt.

Think of the Good Thief's honesty and charity. He used words like "We deserve" and "our crimes." He didn't just accuse the other thief; he included himself in the accusations! By doing so, he confessed his own sins to Our Lord, he accepted his death as punishment for his crimes, and finally asked Our Lord for one thing only..."Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom." By calling Jesus, "Lord," the Good Thief knew and publicly acknowledged that Jesus Christ is God.

And what of the Unrepentant Thief? When rebuked by the Good Thief, the unrepentant one had no more words to hurl against Our Lord. He had no defense at all. Instead of following the right example of the Good Thief, he instead chose to sink into final despair. He, like the Good Thief, could have repented and confessed his sins. He, like the Good Thief, could have offered his sufferings as reparation for his crimes. His own cross, like the Good Thief's, could have been a source of merit if only he had responded to God's grace by accepting it and offering it to God. But he did not. In his soul, he turned away, and the final grace offered him was lost.

Two sinners, both given the same grace to die alongside Our Lord, to repent and to confess their sins, to seek pardon,to offer their deaths in reparation for their sins, to receive God's forgiveness after confession, to pray, and to merit eternal salvation. But only one died in the state of sanctifying grace.

By confessing, and by seeking and receiving both forgiveness and absolution, the Good Thief died a Catholic in the state of grace. By offering up the punishment of death on the Cross for his crimes, he died with the promise of salvation. For Our Lord Himself said to him, "...this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." The Good Thief's soul went to Paradise, "the bosom of Abraham," the place for those who were saved, where there they waited until the day of Our Lord's Ascension so they, too, could follow Him into heaven.

And so, when other sinners see The Passion of the Christ and can only respond by mocking, arguing or quibbling instead of accepting the Truth set before them...

When others refuse to remember The Passion of the Christ was and is also for them...

When others fail to love Jesus Christ because He is their Lord and Savior, let us first remember that we also are sinners, but we are now Good Thieves, sinners who respond as we should to grace. Good Thieves are those Catholics who continually repent of our sins, who frequent the Sacament of Confesson, who seek forgiveness and absolution, who pray...and who accept our crosses for both punishment of our crimes and the purification of our souls.

Like the Good Thief's words in the movie, we might say to unbelievers, "He prays for you!" We can also say, "He died for you. He died for me." But we, too, must pray for the unbelievers and the fallen-aways.

And as we pray for the conversion of unrepentant sinners, let us also recall that "it becomes our duty to make reparation for their indifference and ingratitude. In proportion to the world's forgetfulness should be our remembrance. This solemn obligation rests on us all as Catholics." (Meditation on the Passion, p. v)

(Slightly edited from the first entry, posted February 28, 2004 to the original blog, Keeping It Catholic - with Marianna Bartold.)

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