The Gospel for November 20th, 2016: “The Crucifixion”
Reflection: Avoidance of Suffering Misses the Point
As we celebrate the “Feast of Christ the King” on this last Sunday of Ordinary Time, we read from Luke’s gospel about the Crucifixion. I think it is worth noting that this is not a passage with Jesus as teacher; nor is it any scripture that refers to after the Resurrection where we see Christ ruling from Heaven. We know and celebrate Christ as our one true king because He died on the cross. His dominion over our minds, bodies, and hearts was purchased with His precious blood. As so it is appropriate that we reflect on this before beginning Advent where we renew our mission to return our minds, bodies, and hearts to His will in preparation for His coming.
This passage from Luke describes the reaction of three particular persons, or more precisely perspectives, to the Crucifixion, which I think illustrates the difficulty we have in accepting that to follow Him in this life is to suffer as He did. To accept Jesus as our eternal savior is to accept our crosses in this life that will empty our selfishness and surrender to faith in Him alone. It is to deny our innate desire to cling to sin and attempt to save ourselves.
The first of the three persons is the mocking observer, specifically named as rulers and soldiers in this gospel. The rulers sneer at Him, “He saved others, let him save himself if he is the chosen one, the Christ of God” (35). The soldiers join in the uncompassionate mocking, jeering at Christ, “If you are King of the Jews, save yourself” (37). It has been my experience that we often mock to cover insecurity. Although it could be argued such comments were motivated by bloodlust or mob mentality, I see in their comments the need to suppress their consciences which are telling them this is wrong. They are crucifying their true king. They know in their references to Christ’s saving others that He is who He says, and that this crucifixion is the final sign to complete His message. What message? That to participate in the salvation He offers we must make ourselves meek, unselfish, and willing to suffer in this life. So they mask that knowledge in the logic that a king should be able to conquer his enemies with power and escape death. He should be able to escape suffering. Suffering can’t possibly be the way of salvation, right? And so they reject Him, a rejection marked by boasts and ridicule. They fail to join Him in His suffering to save our fellow humans. They fail to do as Mary does and simply offer love and acceptance of God’s will in this heart-wrenching moment in the theo-drama. Their physical lives are safe at this moment, but their souls are enthralled by sin.
The next character we see react is traditionally known as Gestas, the unrepentant thief who dies next to Jesus on his own cross. Unlike the mocking observers, death is near for him, and he is suffering great physical pain. So his reference to Jesus’s ability to save Himself from this horrific death is in the hope that Jesus will save him as well. His hope for a savior is completely self-serving and unaccepting of the idea that suffering for our sins can lead us closer to God’s justice and mercy. Though he asks Jesus for help, he fails to acknowledge his sinfulness, fails to believe that his King embraces suffering as penitence, and fails to follow Jesus faithfully at this critical moment and opportunity.
The final character we see is the repentant thief, traditionally known as Dismas. To Gestas, he responds, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal” (40-41). His acceptance of Christ’s innocence and his own guilt are the words of a repentant heart. And after this confession, he asks Jesus to save him not from suffering and death on a cross, but rather to save him from an eternal separation from Jesus. He asks, as we should ask, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (42). At the request of this humble, repentant, and faithful sinner, Jesus extends the same promise He promises to all of us, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (43).
If we deny ourselves and surrender to Him, we will be with him forever. It is the daily challenge of all humanity and requires us to remain faithful in the face of our own suffering and of those we care about. It prompts us to love others and bring them to Jesus, even though we selfishly would rather not for a whole slew of reasons that we know in the end are the signs of our sinfulness. We might try to deny this challenge by insecure mockery, or worse by persecuting others, as did the rulers and soldiers; we might ask to be saved out of desperation but still reject a savior who asks us to join him in suffering for his fallen children as Gestas did; or strengthened by prayer and sacraments and good works and yes, suffering, we might remain faithful in our pain, so that we might be with our king in paradise when our time on Earth has passed, as Dismas did. God bless Dismas. May he pray for us in Heaven to follow his example when our time comes.