Posted November 19, 2013
Gospel Reading: Luke 23:35-43
A young priest boasted to his pastor, “I feel that my sermon was really anointed today. I had the people glued to their seats.”
“Well,” said the Monsignor, “I guess that’s one way to hold an audience.”
One time, as a young priest, I foolishly tried to “hold an audience” by subsuming the persona of Bishop Sheen, impersonating him and quoting him almost verbatim, from a recorded sermon he gave on the gospel about Christ the King, whose great mercy was dispensed from his Calvary throne to the repentant thief traditionally known as Dismas. Theatrically aping Bishop Sheen, I even quoted his description of Christ the King as “our Merciful Monarch,” and Dismas as “the thief who stole paradise from the King as he entered his kingdom.” In a climactic flourish, I rhapsodized Bishop Sheen’s insight dramatically: “If this be the spark, dear God, what be the flame?”
All theatrics aside, the thrust of that epithet was to show God’s infinite merciful love conveyed by a single sentence of forgiveness—like a flame or a conflagration hidden in an igniting spark, or an embryonic oak tree in an acorn.
While I was researching material for my book, The Awesome Mercy of God, I learned that God’s mercy is mentioned more than 400 times in the Bible, I found the many scripture pericopes on divine mercy to be really awesome; hence the book title. Not just in the Jesus-Dismas event, but in all the Bible’s mercy references, I felt a kind of spiritual “awe,” as in Luke’s classical triad of mercy parables: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son known as the prodigal son. (By the way, I think the prodigal son parable should be called “the prodigal Father parable,” for his prodigal mercy overshadowed the prodigality of the son in spending an inheritance on prostitutes and a life of debauchery.)
The Jesus-Dismas dialog lends itself to a seldom explored aspect of theology, or, more specifically, soteriology, since it unearths a rarely viewed aspect of God’s redemptive mercy. The science of soteriology probes the two-sided coin of redemption-salvation. Redemption is God’s action of giving (“redemptio means payment). Salvation is the human act of receiving the payed-for gift of heavenly reward, conditioned, of course, on repentance).
Christ as King often spoke of heaven as the kingdom of heaven, but when Dismas asks to be remembered in Christ’s kingdom, Jesus doesn’t speak of heaven but only “paradise,” which was not heaven. Why? Because heaven is centralized on the direct “face-to-face beatific vision” of God, mentioned in 1 Cor. 13. In paradise God was known only obscurely, as in our present earthly state, that is—to use Paul’s words—“as in a mirror.” (Remember, ancient mirrors consisted only of polished metal, which of course reflected images obscurely.)
Jesus words, “this day with me in paradise” could not have referred to heaven, for Jesus would not arrive there until his ascension, 40 days later, when heaven would be opened to all worthy pre-Christian souls, ransomed by Jesus’ death. In Hebrews 9 it says that Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, died to remit the sins of those under the old covenant. Those “old covenant sinners” resided in a most blissful state which Paul himself experienced (2 Cor. 12), when he was “caught up into paradise.” In Luke 16 Jesus himself refers to this “paradise,” this abode of blessedness, as the “side of Abraham”— the premiere saint of God’s people, who awaited with him for their future vindication. This paradise, often referred to as the “limbo of the patriarchs,” was an “abode of the righteous”; it provided limited but blissful fulfillment for the heaven-bound.
Jesus descended before he ascended; the classic Apostles’ Creed says that “he descended into “hell”—that is, Hades, the abode of the dead—certainly not the hell of the damned (Tartaros). This “non-heaven” “hell” called paradise had no resemblance to the infernal hell, except for the souls’ non-access to heaven (temporarily), and the absence of the direct vision of God (temporarily). St. Thomas, in his Catena Aurea, says that Christ’s separated soul and entombed body both encased his divinity, yet in neither one could heaven’s Beatific Vision be seen, even in any transfiguration. Hence, Dismas did not directly see Christ’s divinity in paradise, but he did encounter the created human soul of Christ, visiting there between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.
Because souls in paradise lacked complete fulfillment, the first pope (1Peter 3:19) refers to this place as the “prison” into which Jesus’ “spirit” descended (that is, his human soul, separated by death from his entombed body). In this excursion Jesus evangelized its denizens, for Hebrews 2:3 reminds us that they had not been evangelized. Peter then describes Jesus’ mission as teaching these souls about salvation, and about baptism as the normative means of implementing it. That was divine mercy by enlightenment!
Thus, this gospel displays a trilogy of episodes of mercy exercised by Christ the King—the Merciful Monarch: his mercy extended to the living, to the dying and even to the dead. First, he forgave the living—the brutal soldiers and “rulers” who challenged his royal kingship, publicly emblazoned on his bloody throne, Rex Judeorum. Second, he forgave the dying Dismas, with a promise of bliss in paradise; and third, mercy to the dead in paradise, exciting their hope of being “transferred to the kingdom of Gods son” (Col. 1:13) at his Ascension. In the psalmist’s words, “He leads forth the prisoners with singing “(Ps. 68:6).
On his blood-splattered throne, Jesus, by his sacred Passion became King of Martyrs. Mary by her com-passion became Queen of Martyrs, as St. Alphonsus reminds us. By way of parallel, our Merciful King promises to be with us, like Dismas “in his kingdom” through our own daily passion of suffering and our com-passion for others. How? “Take up your cross daily and follow me.”
Let us foster the hope articulated in a liturgical post-Communion prayer: that we may share in the glory of Christ our merciful King in his heavenly kingdom. The words of the saintly Oscar Romero say it all: “Jesus’ kingship is not a despotic regime, but a regime of merciful love.” +++++
Fr. John H. Hampsch, c.m.f.