Thursday, March 14, 2024

Meditation for Good Friday 'Today you will be with me in paradise''

Luke 23:42-43 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” And Jesus replied, “I assure you, today you will be with me in paradise.”


In the West we translate this passage in the future tense: “today you will be in paradise.” But in many Orthodox churches this passage is understood in the present tense: “even now, hanging here in agony on these crosses, you are with me in paradise.” This interpretation carries over into the liturgy; the prayer before Communion contains these words: 'I will not kiss you like Judas or betray your mystery to your enemies, but confess you as the thief did. Remember me in your Kingdom.'


Though the passage is not often understood this way in the West, it is in fact perhaps the perfect expression of the paradox of Good Friday. As someone put it long ago, the Resurrection is not the glorification of Christ but rather the celebration after the glorification, which is the cross.


The meaning of the Good Thief’s petition is found in the sentence we use at every Eucharist: “And here we offer and present unto you our souls and bodies, to be a living sacrifice.” The Good Thief’s petition, uttered in the agony he shares with Christ, is a supreme act of confidence and love. The focus is away from himself. He does not bewail his sins; he does not grovel; he simply offers his life in hope in the mercy of Christ and awakens to paradise. And in that eucharistic self-offering of his pain in union with Jesus he is not only forgiven but forgives.


So it is with us. As Julian of Norwich says, “Sin is behoovely”, that is to say, sin is necessary, because it is only through the lens of our sins that we can properly see the love that hangs on the Tree, and the paradise of God’s mercy. As the old hymn puts it, “In your deep floods/Drown all my faults and fears/ Nor let His eye/See sin, but through my tears.”


Every day of our lives we awaken to paradise: as Christians, we can trust our heart’s intention of self-offering even if it is consciously forgotten, pushed in the background by pain, personal, physical, spiritual, pain that is so severe that everything else is shoved aside except, perhaps, a longing for death.


In his book, The Shattering of Loneliness, Eric Varden writes of his eucharistic understanding of pain, which, when he was a child, was triggered by seeing a farmer’s back covered with terrible scars from his scourging by the Nazis. He writes of his journey to understanding the eucharistic paradox of the cross: 


“The Church became for me an inspirer of remembrance. It permitted me to read my banal, sometimes squalid life into a narrative of redemption that not only reaches back to time’s beginning but remembers forwards, into eternity. To stay within that narrative’s crux is to hear, sometimes with clarity, the desolate cries of mankind, to hear, too, the rasping voice of evil; and that, not vaguely round about, but in one’s heart. One can only persevere in such hearing by attending, at the same time, to another, discreet but ordering voice that speaks, ‘It is accomplished!’ It manages, by harmonic genius, to fathom the violent cries of ‘Crucify!’ and the angelic ‘Hosanna!’ in a single chord that rises out of dissonance towards unheard beauty.

“The scourge whose image stood before me as a child continues to be what it was. It inflicts real wounds that demand to be seen and wept for. They are not, though, beyond healing if irradiated by a glimmer of the fire that obliterates night, the fire that has come into the world as love and simply needs kindling to burn. … I understood that to be a [Christian] is to offer dry wood for this purpose. I was sure . . .the heart . . . conformed to Christ’s, is a tent of meeting. It tends upwards in a joy that is the more confident for having been tested. . .  I see the darkness still—how could I not? . . .  [but] I know it has been pierced. ‘Even darkness is not dark to you, says a Psalm [138:12] That, above all, must never be forgotten.” [Varden 9-10]


So when we pray today through our tears “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom,” let us have faith that in the depths of unknowing in our darkest hour, we are even now kindling the eucharistic Easter fire; and that this loving sacrifice of our souls and bodies is simultaneously and unknowably present to the Face of Christ in Paradise.


   Maggie Ross