Monthly Archives: July 2014

This Very Moment. Luke 23:42-43.

According to Luke’s gospel (23:42-43), the thief who was crucified with Jesus said to him, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He replied, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
If you want to discover the life that really is Life, take the New Testament and read. But if you just want to find out what’s going on, subscribe to the New York Times. My wife and I read the Times at breakfast with devout regularity. Without it we would feel hopelessly out of touch down here in the wilds of Florida. And besides, there is something about the Times that dissolves so perfectly in our coffee. Yes, the news it delivers does sometimes leave a slightly bitter, artificial aftertaste, but we’ve gotten used to that. And if you read the Times daily you will certainly find out as much about what’s going on in the larger world as you could ever wish—and then some.
For instance, the other morning it was reported that folks are paying a lot of money, and occasionally a fortune, to be buried in close proximity to dead celebrities. If they weren’t able to hang out with them in this life, their admirers consider it worth hundreds of thousands, even millions to reside among the stars in the next. In 1992 Playboy magazine publisher Hugh Hefner paid a hefty $75,000 for crypt near Marilyn Monroe’s. But more recently a Los Angeles woman, whose husband had been interred just above Marilyn, sold his crypt for $4.6 million on eBay. He had been resting in peace for 23 years, but by shifting his remains and selling his crypt to the highest bidder his widow was able to pay off the $ 1 million mortgage he had left behind–with change left over to be merry on.
Now that’s serious bucks! But resting places near the famous are available to more ordinary people for less lofty sums. Pauline Smith, 74, a retired school teacher who lives in New Rochelle, recently paid an undisclosed amount for a plot in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx proximate to the graves of jazz legend Duke Ellington and Frankie Manning, one of the creators of the Lindy hop. Miss Pauline explained her decision this way: “Who knows what life is after death. Not knowing what it is, I want to enjoy the thing that brings the most joy to me in my life right now, so I want to be close to them.”
Well, bless her heart! We may consider her reasoning a bit clouded, but Miss Pauline is right on one score—no one does know what existence is after death is like. The great mystery of this life is its Great Opposite. People of every time and culture have faced the darkness in the certainty that there is something waiting behind the curtain of this world. But what exactly? No one knows. So it has always been an overwhelming temptation for us mortals to picture the life to come in terms of the life we experience now–or our life now as we would like it to be. So who can blame Miss Pauline, avid jazz enthusiast and swing dancer, if she wishes for a hereafter where the music is always cool and dancing goes on forever under stars that never fade and go out.
It’s an interesting vision of the hereafter, you must admit–an everlasting shag dance with the best music imaginable. Maybe with someone you greatly love as your partner. But it becomes less attractive when you really stop and consider it. The problem is its forever, beloved. You never could stop. You could never say—I’ll just sit this one out. After a million years or so, you might just want to sit one out. But the dance must go on. It’s nothing new about the idea. The life to come has often been pictured in terms of an endless whirl of transcendental music. But even the tunes of the incomparable Duke Ellington would become tedious if they played on and on and on and on. In time everything wears out, and when it does, boredom and exhaustion set in. Anything forever is hell.
In his Metamorphoses the first century Roman writer Ovid recounts the tragic legend of the Cumeaen Sibyl. The sibyl was a mortal woman, but her ravishing beauty attracted the attention of the god Apollo who offered to grant her a wish—anything whatsoever–in exchange for her virginity. A prophetess should have been smarter, of course, but she agreed to his terms. In exchange for a single night of love the sibyl demanded for as many years of life as the grains of sand she could squeeze into her hand. Apollo agreed, but when push came to shove the sibyl changed her mind and rejected him. The god was furious. But rather than renege upon his promise, Apollo granted her wish—literally. He gave her a thousand years of life, but allowed her body to wither away because she had not asked for eternal youth. In time Ovid tells us the sibyl became smaller and smaller and smaller until at last she was only a voice, which was kept in a jar that hung in the mouth of a cave. People came from far and near to receive her oracles, but when a band of rowdy boys demanded to know—“Sibyl, what do you want?” she would only reply—“I want to die.”
It is a parable about the terrible result when even the best thing—life—goes on too long. Forever is a dangerous thing, and smart people who should know better continue to wish for it. But our human nature is stronger than we are, beloved. A recent article in the magazine Prevention called human death “a design flaw” in the structure of reality, a defect which may soon with the advance of science be remedied forever. It’s an interesting idea, but don’t rush on my account. Even if the beauty and boundless energy of youth could be preserved, an existence indefinitely extended would in time would be worse than the sum of all our nightmares. Life is the best of all good gifts—the jewel of God’s creation–but nothing is good that lasts forever.
But forever is not the same as eternity. Eternity is open to all of us at every moment in our lives. Its door is always ajar. So the evangelist Luke, in midst of his passion narrative, pauses to tell us the story of how one man found that door. He goes nameless in the gospel, though tradition calls him Dismus and gives him a fictional life’s story in which he had previously known Jesus and had even been baptized. But there is no basis in fact for any of that. It is pure legend. All we actually we know about him is that he was a condemned criminal, possibly a bandit. But there is absolutely no indication that he knew anything about the prophet from Nazareth that was not contained in the ironic superscription over the head of Jesus, “This is the king of the Jews.” So this so-called “Good Thief” could never have understood the full import of what he was asking when he begged—“Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
An examination of the Greek verb suggests that he said it not once but repeatedly, over and over again. Probably he was delirious with pain. In such a state racked between pain and fear, he certainly could not have fully reckoned with whom he was dealing. Nevertheless, the dying man ranted on, pleading with Jesus not to be utterly forgotten, not to disappear utterly from human memory. There was nothing so remarkable about the request itself–we all wish for that. Remember me.
It is Jesus’ reply that is truly mind-blowing–“I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Originally paradise was the term used for the Garden of Eden, the timeless place where humanity had its beginnings and took its terrible fall. It was the place where we were before time and death got ahold of us. But in the first century in the Judaism of Jesus time paradise had come to mean that place, again outside of time, where the righteous dead remained until the final resurrection. Paradise was an achievement, a promise to the good, but the dying Jesus offers it without condition to one who was manifestly unrighteous. The thief is saved without baptism or sacraments or good works, without theology or creed, with hardly a hook to hang his faith upon. From the point of view of the later church, he was something of an embarrassment–the thief who stole heaven. But Jesus cuts through all the red tape that tangles us and rescues him by the purest grace imaginable. The former bandit is saved by the mere presence of the Savior.
And that is the New Testament’s mind-blowing message about Jesus–eternal life begins at the moment of our encounter with him. And eternity is always now—in that moment. “Today you will be with me in paradise,” Jesus says. Today—not yesterday or tomorrow. And the crucified and risen Lord is the open door by which we enter it. Eternity is his mediate presence. So in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas Jesus says—“You search for God through heaven and earth, but you don’t know the one who is right before your eyes, because you don’t know to search into this very moment.” Instead of looking into this very moment, we search for God elsewhere, and our search always ends up mired in some form of superstition.
Superstition differs from faith in that superstition always focuses upon what we do, on our effort, and not what God does. It is composed of all the ways we try to manipulate the will of God for our own purposes. As the faith of our fathers becomes more clouded and remote to many, superstition is flowering luxuriantly around us. And if you need proof of that, all you need do is look at the proliferation of little shrines along our highways. These roadside memorials, marking the place where someone has died violently, have been proliferating tremendously during the last few years. Here in Florida they are everywhere. But what is the motivation for erecting them? And why so many more of late? Well they seem to be reflections of those massive outpourings of public grief that have surrounded the untimely deaths of certain much-adored celebrities. Recall if you will the vast heaps of flowers that were piled at the Pont de l’Alma in Paris where Princess Diana perished in a fiery crash. These roadside memorials are nothing on that scale, of course. But they do seem to be the same sort of attempt by grieving friends and families to deal with the sudden death of a loved one away from home.
There is such a roadside shrine here in Tarpon Springs I see almost daily–a cross made of PVC pipe with a rotting teddy bear attached to it. The words– “We love you Luther” are printed in glitter on a ribbon around the bear’s neck. (A young man by that name was shot during a drug deal gone bad on that spot a year or so ago.) There is a heap of artificial flowers mounded at the foot of the cross. New ones appear periodically. I look at that sad little memorial with vague curiosity and from a cultural distance. It belongs to a world view quite different from my own. (For better and worse America in the 21st century has become a foreign country to us all.) Obviously Luther’s little roadside Calvary is an attempt to keep his memory alive—a desire we all share, But its real meaning certainly goes deeper than that. It represents an offering to his spirit. To those who built it and maintain it, its meaning almost certainly goes much deeper than that. For them something of Luther’s personality still lingers in the last place where he was alive. And the bear and the flowers are intended to comfort him and assure him that he is not forgotten
The dying thief says to Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” But does Jesus ever forget? We certainly do. Stuffed animals rot and the even artificial flowers fade. Human memory also withers with time. So what lasts? We live in a world that is deeply confused about the survival of the self. People—even Christian believers—worry about life’s Great Opposite and form all kinds of silly notions about what waits for us there. This anxiety is nothing new. The Christians living in ancient Corinth wondered about the life to come and about whether those they loved would be there to share it with them. So St. Paul writes to reassure them: “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. For if in this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Corinthians 15:16-20).
For those who follow Jesus, Paul is saying, their hope must be centered entirely on the crucified and risen Lord. In him there is neither past nor present. And the resurrection life that he promised to the thief and all those chipped and damaged saints who followed after, the life he shares with us is a life that is not enslaved by time. Resurrection life is the eternal now. We experience paradise in our encounters with the risen Christ right now. In the sacrament. In the reflection of a sunset on the sea. In the taste of strawberries. In the smile of someone we will never stop loving. In those moments everything comes together free from the dictatorship of time. In those moments there is no future of worries and fears and no past of anger and regrets. There is only the eternal now, which is where Paradise is.
Eternity is a low door in the garden wall, but it has been intentionally left unlocked and wide open.

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Filed under Gospels, Letters of Saint Paul, New Testament