“Death remains an intruder in the human story; it’s a scourge, a curse, the last enemy. Christians believe the capacity to face it in hope flows directly from the events of the first Easter weekendÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and from the abandonment experienced then.
”˜My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’: the words of Jesus from the cross reveal a depth of spiritual torment we can barely conceive: in his hour of most acute agony, he reaches out for his Father, and he’s not there: he’s by himself.
And that sense of abandonment crushed his followers as well, left them confused, bewildered. It’s why the day after Good Friday is always a strange one: a limbo day between the dark horror, and the dazzling light yet to dawn: God in the grave, the source of all life in the world of the dead.
It’s supremely, it seems to me, a day for those perplexed by uncertainty, anxious about health, work, family, faith, the worldÃ¢â‚¬Â¦and feeling overwhelmingly lonely.
The Christian faith affirms that Jesus tasted the extreme of abandonment precisely so that we need not; except, that is, the serene abandonment which assures us that even in the greatest traumas, God hold us firmly, and his death-defying purposes are always loving ones.”
Daily Archives: April 11, 2009
The Virgin-Mother stood at distance (there)
From her son’s cross, not shedding once a tear:
Because the Law forbad to sit and cry
For those, who did as malefactors die.
So she, to keep her mighty woes in awe,
Tortured her love, not to transgress the Law.
Observe we may, how Mary Joses then,
And th’other Mary (Mary Magdalen)
Sat by the grave; and sadly sitting there,
Shed for their master man a bitter tear:
But ”˜twas not till their dearest Lord was dead;
And then to weep they both were licensed.
–Robert Herrick (1591-1674)
Yet, there was one large omission that set all other truth dangerously at risk: the omission of holy rest. The refusal to be silent. The obsessive avoidance of emptiness. The denial of any experience and any people in the least bit suggestive of godforsakenness.
It was far more than an annual ignorance on Holy Saturday; it was religiously fueled, weekly arrogance. Not only was the Good Friday crucifixion bridged to the Easter resurrection by this day furious with energy and lucrative with reward, but all the gospel truths were likewise set as either introductions or conclusions to the human action that displayed our prowess and our virtue every week of the year. God was background to our business. Every gospel truth was maintained intact and all the human energy was wholly admirable, but the rhythms were all wrong, the proportions wildly skewed. Desolation””and with it companionship with the desolate, from first-century Semites to twentieth-century Indians””was all but wiped from consciousness.
But there came a point at which I was convinced that it was critically important to pay more attention to what God does than what I do; to find daily, weekly, yearly rhythms that would get that awareness into my bones. Holy Saturday for a start. And then, times to visit people in despair, and learn their names, and wait for resurrection.
Embedded in my memory now is this most poignant irony: those seven or eight Indians, with the Thunderbird empties lying around, drunk in the alley behind the Pastime Baron Saturday afternoon, while we Scandinavian Christians worked diligently late into the night, oblivious to the holiness of the day. The Indians were in despair, religious despair, something very much like the Holy Saturday despair narrated in the Gospels. Their way of life had come to nothing, the only buffalo left to them engraved on nickels, a couple of which one of their squaws had paid out that morning for four bony ham hocks. The early sacredness of their lives was a wasteland; and they, godforsaken as they supposed, drugged their despair with Thunderbird and buried their dead visions and dreams in the alley behind the Pastime, ignorant of the God at work beneath their emptiness.
Loving Father, we thank you that your Son, Jesus, our human brother, carried the terrible burden of our sin on his shoulders. But after Jesus, our human brother, offered himself up for us as the perfect sacrifice for all people’s sin, he rested in the tomb, for he was completely exhausted, to the very point of death. As he had always kept your holy law perfectly for our sake, so we thank you that, out of love as our God and brother, he perfectly fulfilled the third commandment, to rest on the Sabbath day.
Refresh us this day as we rest in the peace of your forgiveness. Renew us when we rest in the sleep of death, and fill the deathly silence of the tomb with the promises of your word, especially with the good news of Jesus’ victory over our powerful enemies, Satan, death and sin.
Father, you give us life by your creative Spirit, who is the Lord, the giver of life. You have designed us to rest from each day’s activities in the gentle massage and healing of your precious gift of sleep. Wake us refreshed to live the gift of each new day. Touch our spirits so that we want to please you, as we play out our roles on this earth, even when it means using up our lives for the sake of other people you put near to us, in our families, in the congregation and in our local community.
Marciful God, you have designed us to find peace of mind when we take refuge and rest in your arms of faith. Renew us each day to live as your children. Continue to renew us with your promises, until the day you call us home and we rest in perfect peace, joy and love with you in eternity.
We ask this through Jesus, who entered the tomb of death for us, so that we might live with him forever.
Lord God our Father,
maker of heaven and earth:
As the crucified body of your dear Son
was laid in the tomb
to await the glory that would be revealed,
so may we endure
the darkness of this present time
in the sure confidence
that we will rise with him.
We ask this through your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns
with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.
On Holy Saturday we enter into the mystery. Today we contemplate Jesus, there in the tomb, dead. In that tomb, he is dead, exactly the way each of us will be dead. We don’t easily contemplate dying, but we rarely contemplate being dead. I have had the blessed experience of being with a number of people who have died, of arriving at a hospital shortly after someone has died, of attending an autopsy, and of praying with health sciences students over donated bodies in gross anatomy class. These were powerful experiences because they all brought me face-to-face with the mystery of death itself. With death, life ends. Breathing stops, and in an instant, the life of this person has ended. And, in a matter of hours, the body becomes quite cold and life-less – dramatic evidence, to our senses, that this person no longer exists. All that is left is this decaying shell that once held his or her life.
Death is our ultimate fear. Everything else we fear, every struggle we have, is some taste of, some chilling approach to, the experience of losing our life. This fear is responsible for so much of our lust and greed, so much of our denial and arrogance, so much of our silly clinging to power, so much of our hectic and anxiety-driven activity. It is the one, inevitable reality we all will face. There is not enough time, money, joy, fulfillment, success. Our physical beauty and strength, our mental competency and agility, all that we have and use to define ourselves, slip away from us with time. Our lives are limited. Our existence, in every way we can comprehand it, comes to an end. We will all die. In a matter of time, all that will be left of any of us is a decomposing body.
Today is a day to soberly put aside the blinders we have about the mystery of death and our fear of it. Death is very real and its approach holds great power in our lives. The “good news” we are about to celebrate has no real power in our lives unless we have faced the reality of death. To contemplate Jesus’ body, there in that tomb, is to look our death in the face, and it is preparation for hearing the Gospel with incredible joy. That we are saved from the ultimate power of sin and of death itself comes to us as a great relief, as a tremendous liberation. If Jesus lives, you and I will live! The mystery of death, which we contemplate today, will be overcome – we will live forever!
“By the grace of God” Jesus tasted death “for every one”. In his plan of salvation, God ordained that his Son should not only “die for our sins” but should also “taste death”, experience the condition of death, the separation of his soul from his body, between the time he expired on the cross and the time he was raised from the dead. The state of the dead Christ is the mystery of the tomb and the descent into hell. It is the mystery of Holy Saturday, when Christ, lying in the tomb, reveals God’s great sabbath rest after the fulfillment of man’s salvation, which brings peace to the whole universe.
”¦Suddenly all of them standing around the gallows know it: he is gone. Immeasurable emptiness (not solitude) streams forth from the hanging body. Nothing but this fantastic emptiness is any longer at work here. The world with its shape has perished; it tore like a curtain from top to bottom, without making a sound. It fainted away, turned to dust, burst like a bubble. There is nothing more but nothingness itself.
The world is dead.
Love is dead.
God is dead.
Everything that was, was a dream dreamt by no one. The present is all past. The future is nothing. The hand has disappeared from the clock’s face. No more struggle between love and hate, between life and death. Both have been equalized, and love’s emptying out has become the emptiness of hell. One has penetrated the other perfectly. The nadir has reached the zenith: nirvana.
Was that lightning?
Was the form of a Heart visible in the boundless void for a flash as the sky was rent, drifting in the whirlwind through the worldless chaos, driven like a leaf?
Or was it winged, propelled and directed by its own invisible wings, standing as lone survivor between the soulless heavens and the perished earth?
Chaos. Beyond heaven and hell. Shapeless nothingness behind the bounds of creation.
Is that God?
God died on the Cross.
Is that death?
No dead are to be seen.
Is it the end?
Nothing that ends is any longer there.
Is it the beginning?
The beginning of what? In the beginning was the Word. What kind of word? What incomprehensible, formless, meaningless word? But look: What is this light glimmer that wavers and begins to take form in the endless void? It has neither content nor contour.
A nameless thing, more solitary than God, it emerges out of pure emptiness. It is no one. It is anterior to everything. Is it the beginning? It is small and undefined as a drop. Perhaps it is water. But it does not flow. It is not water. It is thicker, more opaque, more viscous than water. It is also not blood, for blood is red, blood is alive, blood has a loud human speech. This is neither water nor blood. It is older than both, a chaotic drop.
Slowly, slowly, unbelievably slowly the drop begins to quicken. We do not know whether this movement is infinite fatigue at death’s extremity or the first beginning – of what?
Quiet, quiet! Hold the breath of your thoughts! It’s still much too early in the day to think of hope. The seed is still much too weak to start whispering about love. But look there: it is indeed moving, a weak, viscous flow. It’s still much too early to speak of a wellspring.
It trickles, lost in the chaos, directionless, without gravity. But more copiously now. A wellspring in the chaos. It leaps out of pure nothingness, it leaps out of itself.
It is not the beginning of God, who eternally and mightily brings himself into existence as Life and Love and triune Bliss.
It is not the beginning of creation, which gently and in slumber slips out of the Creator’s hands.
It is a beginning without parallel, as if Life were arising from Death, as if weariness (already such weariness as no amount of sleep could ever dispel) and the uttermost decay of power were melting at creation’s outer edge, were beginning to flow, because flowing is perhaps a sign and a likeness of weariness which can no longer contain itself, because everything that is strong and solid must in the end dissolve into water. But hadn’t it – in the beginning – also been born from water? And is this wellspring in the chaos, this trickling weariness, not the beginning of a new creation?
The magic of Holy Saturday.
The chaotic fountain remains directionless. Could this be the residue of the Son’s love which, poured out to the last when every vessel cracked and the old world perished, is now making a path for itself to the Father through the glooms of nought?
Or, in spite of it all, is this love trickling on in impotence, unconsciously, laboriously, towards a new creation that does not yet even exist, a creation which is still to be lifted up and given shape? Is it a protoplasm producing itself in the beginning, the first seed of the New Heaven and the New Earth?
The spring leaps up even more plenteously. To be sure, it flows out of a wound and is like the blossom and fruit of a wound; like a tree it sprouts up from this wound. But the wound no longer causes pain. The suffering has been left far behind as the past origin and previous source of today’s wellspring.
What is poured out here is no longer a present suffering, but a suffering that has been concluded”“no longer now a sacrificing love, but a love sacrificed.
Only the wound is there: gaping, the great open gate, the chaos, the nothingness out of which the wellspring leaps forth. Never again will this gate be shut. Just as the first creation arose ever anew out of sheer nothingness, so, too, this second world – still unborn, still caught up in its first rising – will have its sole origin in this wound, which is never to close again.
In the future, all shape must arise out of this gaping void, all wholeness must draw its strength from the creating wound.
High-vaulted triumphal Gate of Life! Armored in gold, armies of graces stream out of you with fiery lances. Deep-dug Fountain of Life! Wave upon wave gushes out of you inexhaustible, ever-flowing, billows of water and blood baptizing the heathen hearts, comforting the yearning souls, rushing over the deserts of guilt, enriching over-abundantly, overflowing every heart that receives it, far surpassing every desire.
”“Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
“Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday is probably one of his most intriguing contributions since he interprets it as moving beyond the active self-surrender of Good Friday into the absolute helplessness of sin and the abandonment and lostness of death.
In the Old Testament one of the greatest threats of God’s wrath was His threat of abandonment, to leave His people desolate, to be utterly rejected of God. It is this that Jesus experienced upon the Cross and in His descent into the lifeless passivity and God-forsakenness of the grave. By His free entrance into the helplessness of sin, Christ was reduced to what Balthasar calls a “cadaver-obedience” revealing and experience the full horror of sin.
As Peter himself preached at Pentecost (Acts 2:23-24; 32-33):
”˜[Jesus] being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you, by lawless hands, have crucified and put to death; who God raised up, having abolished the birth pangs of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it”¦This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He pour out this which you now see and hear.’
We ought to pause and note the passivity that is expressed here. Christ experienced what God was doing through Him by His purpose and foreknowledge. Jesus was truly dead and fully encompassed within and held by the pains of death and needed God to abolish them. He was freed from death by God, not simply by God’s whim, but because for God it was impossible that death should hold Christ. Christ Himself receives the Holy Spirit from the Father in order that He might pour out that Spirit. Balthasar writes:
”˜Jesus was truly dead, because he really became a man as we are, a son of Adam, and therefore, despite what one can sometimes read in certain theological works, he did not use the so-called “brief” time of his death for all manner of “activities” in the world beyond. In the same way that, upon earth, he was in solidarity with the living, so, in the tomb, he is in solidarity with the dead”¦Each human being lies in his own tomb. And with this condition Jesus is in complete solidarity.’
According to Balthasar, this death was also the experience, for a time, of utter God-forsakenness””that is hell. Hell, then, is a Christological concept which is defined in terms of Christ’s experience on the Cross. This is also the assurance that we never need fear rejection by the Father if we are in Christ, since Christ has experienced hell in our place.”
”“S. Joel Garver on Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
I hope no one who reads this book has been quite as miserable as Susan and Lucy were that night; but if you have been”“if you’ve been up all night and cried till you have no more tears left in you”“you will know that there comes in the end a sort of quietness. You feel as if nothing was ever going to happen again.
”“C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)
Jesus dies. His lifeless body is taken down from the cross. Painters and sculptors have strained their every nerve to portray the sorrow of Mary holding her lifeless son in her arms, as mothers today in Baghdad hold with the same anguish the bodies of their children. On Holy Saturday, or Easter Eve, God is dead, entering into the nothingness of human dying. The source of all being, the One who framed the vastness and the microscopic patterning of the Universe, the delicacy of petals and the scent of thyme, the musician’s melodies and the lover’s heart, is one with us in our mortality. In Jesus, God knows our dying from the inside.
–”“The Rt. Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe
In the midst of life we are in death.
We grow and wither as quickly as flowers;
we disappear like shadows.
To whom can we go for help, but to you, Lord God,
though you are rightly displeased because of our sins?
And yet, Lord God Almighty,
most holy and most merciful Saviour,
deliver us from the bitterness of eternal death.
You know the secrets of our hearts;
mercifully hear us, most worthy judge eternal;
keep us, at our last hour,
in the consolation of your love.
You, O Lord, are gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and rich in love.
As kind as a father is to his children,
so kind is the Lord to those who honour him.
For you know what we are made of;
you remember that we are dust.
As for us, our life is like grass.
We grow and flourish like a wildflower;
then the wind blows on it, and it is gone
no-one sees it again.
But for those who honour the Lord, his love lasts forever,
and his goodness endures for all generations.
HOW life and death in Thee
Thou hadst a virgin womb
A Joseph did betroth
”“Richard Crashaw (1613-1649)
The church is dark now. The altar is stripped and bare. Some are getting up and leaving in silence. Others remain kneeling, looking into the darkness. Holy Saturday is ahead, the most quiet day of the year. The silence of that silent night, holy night, the night when God was born was broken by the sounds of a baby, a mother’s words of comfort and angels in concert. Holy Saturday, by contrast, is the sound of prefect silence. Yesterday’s mockery, the good thief’s prayer, the cry of dereliction””all that is past now. Mary has dried her tears, and the whole creation is still, waiting for what will happen next.
Some say that on Holy Saturday Jesus went to hell in triumph, to free the souls long imprisoned there. Others say he descended into a death deeper than death, to embrace in his love even the damned. We do not know. Scripture, tradition and pious writings provide hints and speculations, but about this most silent day it is perhaps best to observe the silence. One day I expect he will tell us all about it. When we are able to understand what we cannot now even understand why we cannot understand.
–Richard John Neuhaus (1936-2009)
Holy Saturday is a neglected day in parish life. Few people attend the Services. Popular piety usually reduces Holy Week to one day ”” Holy Friday. This day is quickly replaced by another ”” Easter Sunday. Christ is dead and then suddenly alive. Great sorrow is suddenly replaced by great joy. In such a scheme Holy Saturday is lost.
In the understanding of the Church, sorrow is not replaced by joy; it is transformed into joy. This distinction indicates that it is precisely within death the Christ continues to effect triumph.
”“Alexander Schmemann (1921-1983)
In this empty hallway, there’s nothing expected of us at this moment. The work is out of our hands, and all we can do is wait, breathe, look around. People sometimes feel like this when they’ve been up all night with someone who’s seriously ill or dying, or when they’ve been through a non-stop series of enormously demanding tasks. A sort of peace, but more a sort of ”˜limbo’, an in-between moment. For now, nothing more to do; tired, empty, slightly numbed, we rest for a bit, knowing that what matters is now happening somewhere else.
”“Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, who as on this day didst rest in the sepulcher, and didst thereby sanctify the grave to be a bed of hope to thy people: make us so to abound in sorrow for our sins, which were the cause of thy passion, that when our bodies rest in the dust, our souls may live with thee; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end.
At four o’clock
in the gun-metal blue dark
we hear the first crow of the first cock
the gun-metal blue window
and immediately there is an echo
off in the distance,
then one from the backyard fence,
then one, with horrible insistence,
grates like a wet match
from the broccoli patch,
flares,and all over town begins to catch.
come from the water-closet door,
from the dropping-plastered henhouse floor,
where in the blue blur
their rusting wives admire,
the roosters brace their cruel feet and glare
with stupid eyes
while from their beaks there rise
the uncontrolled, traditional cries.
Deep from protruding chests
in green-gold medals dressed,
planned to command and terrorize the rest,
the many wives
who lead hens’ lives
of being courted and despised;
deep from raw throats
a senseless order floats
all over town. A rooster gloats
over our beds
from rusty irons sheds
and fences made from old bedsteads,
over our churches
where the tin rooster perches,
over our little wooden northern houses,
from all the muddy alleys,
marking out maps like Rand McNally’s:
oil-golds and copper greens,
anthracite blues, alizarins,
each one an active
displacement in perspective;
each screaming, “This is where I live!”
“Get up! Stop dreaming!”
Roosters, what are you projecting?
You, whom the Greeks elected
to shoot at on a post, who struggled
when sacrificed, you whom they labeled
what right have you to give
commands and tell us how to live,
cry “Here!” and “Here!”
and wake us here where are
unwanted love, conceit and war?
The crown of red
set on your little head
is charged with all your fighting blood
Yes, that excrescence
makes a most virile presence,
plus all that vulgar beauty of iridescence
Now in mid-air
by two they fight each other.
Down comes a first flame-feather,
and one is flying,
with raging heroism defying
even the sensation of dying.
And one has fallen
but still above the town
his torn-out, bloodied feathers drift down;
and what he sung
no matter. He is flung
on the gray ash-heap, lies in dung
with his dead wives
with open, bloody eyes,
while those metallic feathers oxidize.
St. Peter’s sin
was worse than that of Magdalen
whose sin was of the flesh alone;
of spirit, Peter’s,
falling, beneath the flares,
among the “servants and officers.”
Old holy sculpture
could set it all together
in one small scene, past and future:
Christ stands amazed,
Peter, two fingers raised
to surprised lips, both as if dazed.
But in between
a little cock is seen
carved on a dim column in the travertine,
explained by gallus canit;
flet Petrus underneath it,
There is inescapable hope, the pivot;
yes, and there Peter’s tears
run down our chanticleer’s
sides and gem his spurs.
as a medieval relic
he waits. Poor Peter, heart-sick,
still cannot guess
those cock-a-doodles yet might bless,
his dreadful rooster come to mean forgiveness,
a new weathervane
on basilica and barn,
and that outside the Lateran
there would always be
a bronze cock on a porphyry
pillar so the people and the Pope might see
that event the Prince
of the Apostles long since
had been forgiven, and to convince
all the assembly
that “Deny deny deny”
is not all the roosters cry.
In the morning
a low light is floating
in the backyard, and gilding
the broccoli, leaf by leaf;
how could the night have come to grief?
gilding the tiny
floating swallow’s belly
and lines of pink cloud in the sky,
the day’s preamble
like wandering lines in marble,
The cocks are now almost inaudible.
The sun climbs in,
following “to see the end,”
faithful as enemy, or friend.
–Elizabeth Bishop (1911 – 1979)
You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold,
but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot.
He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.
–1 Peter 1:18-20
It so happened that in this man Jesus God himself came into the world, which he had created and against all odds still loved. He took human nature upon himself and became man, like the rest of us, in order to put an end to the world’s fight against him and also against itself, and to replace man’s disorder by God’s design. In Jesus God hallowed his name, made his kingdom come, his will done on earth as it is in heaven, as we say in the Lord’s Prayer. In him he made manifest his glory and, amazingly enough, he made it manifest for our salvation. To accomplish this, he not only bandaged, but healed the wounds of the world he helped mankind not only in part and temporarily but radically and for good in the person of his beloved Son; he delivered us from evil and took us to his heart as his children Thereby we are all permitted to live, and to live eternally.
It happened through this man on the cross that God cancelled out and swept away all our human wickedness, our pride, our anxiety, our greed and our false pretences, whereby we had continually offended him and made life difficult, if not impossible, for ourselves and for others. He crossed out what had made our life fundamentally terrifying, dark and distressing – the life of health and of sickness, of happiness and of unhappiness, of the highborn and of the lowborn, of the rich and of the poor, of the free and of the captive. He did away with it. It is no longer part of us, it is behind us. In Jesus God made the day break after the long night and spring come after the long winter.
All these things happened in that one man. In Jesus, God took upon himself the full load of evil; he made our wickedness his own; he gave himself in his dear Son to be defamed as a criminal, to be accused, condemned, delivered from life unto death, as though he himself, the Holy God, had done all the evil we human beings did and do. In giving himself in Jesus Christ, he reconciled the world unto himself; he saved us and made us free to live in his everlasting kingdom; he removed the burden and took it upon himself He the innocent took the place of us the guilty. He the mighty took the place of us the weak. He the living One took the place of us the dying.
This, my dear friends, is the invisible event that took place in the suffering and death of the man hanging on the middle cross on Golgotha. This is reconciliation: his damnation our liberation, his defeat our victory, his mortal pain the beginning of our joy, his death the birth of our life. We do well to remember that this is what those who put him to death really accomplished. They did not know what they did. These deluded men and women accomplished by their evil will and deed that good which God had willed and done with the world and for the world, including the crowd of Jerusalem.
–Karl Barth (1886-1968) from a sermon in 1957
“Christus factus est pro nobis oboediens usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis”
“For Us Christ Made Himself Obedient Up to Death, and Death on a Cross”
On the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of the Apostle Paul, let us listen to his burning words on the mystery of Christ’s death, which we are celebrating. No one can help us understand its significance and importance like he can.
His words to the Corinthians are a sort of manifest: “While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, we are preaching a crucified Christ: to the Jews an obstacle they cannot get over, to the gentiles foolishness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is both the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:22-24). Christ’s death bears universal importance. “One man died for all, then all have died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). His death has given new meaning to the death of every man and every woman.
In Paul’s eyes the cross assumes a cosmic significance. Christ has torn down the wall of separation with it, he has reconciled men with God and with each other, destroying hatred (cf. Ephesians 2:14-16). Based on this, primitive tradition developed the theme of the cross as a cosmic tree that joins heaven and earth with the vertical branch and unites the different peoples of the world with the horizontal branch. It is both a cosmic and a very personal event at the same time….
St. Bernard was so terror-stricken by Christ’s sufferings that he said: I imagined I was secure and I knew nothing of the eternal judgment passed upon me in heaven, until I saw the eternal Son of God took mercy upon me, stepped forward and offered himself on my behalf in the same judgment. Ah, it does not become me still to play and remain secure when such earnestness is behind those sufferings. Hence he commanded the women: “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children.” Lk 23, 28; and gives in the 31st verse the reason: “For if they do these things in the green tree, what shall be done in the dry?” As if to say: Learn from my martyrdom what you have merited and how you should be rewarded. For here it is true that a little dog was slain in order to terrorize a big one. Likewise the prophet also said: “All generations shall lament and bewail themselves more than him”; it is not said they shall lament him, but themselves rather than him. Likewise were also the apostles terror-stricken in Acts 2, 37, as mentioned before, so that they said to the apostles: “0, brethren, what shall we do?” So the church also sings: I will diligently meditate thereon, and thus my soul in me will exhaust itself.
”“Martin Luther (1483-1546)
It is one of his trusted friends that betrays Jesus, and with a kiss. The way Jesus confronted violence has a message for our times. Violence is suicidal, he tells Peter: it is not defeated by more violence, but by a superior spiritual energy that reaches out in the form of healing love. Jesus touches the High Priest’s slave and heals him. The violent man today too may need a healing touch that comes from a love that transcends the immediate issues.
In times of conflict between persons, ethnic and religious groups, nations, economic and political interests, Jesus says, confrontation and violence are not the answer, but love, persuasion and reconciliation. Even when we seem to fail in such efforts, we plant the seeds of peace which will bear fruit in due time. The rightness of our cause is our strength.
Lord Jesus, you consider us your friends, yet we notice traces of infidelity in ourselves. We acknowledge our transgressions. We are presumptuous at times and over-confident. And we fall. Let not avarice, lust or pride take us by surprise. How thoughtlessly do we fly after ephemeral satisfactions and untested ideas! Grant that we may not be tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine… but speaking the truth in love, grow up in every way into Christ the head.
The story of the salvation of the dying thief is a standing instance of the power of Christ to save, and of his abundant willingness to receive all that come to him, in whatever plight they may be. I cannot regard this act of grace as a solitary instance, any more than the salvation of Zacchaeus, the restoration of Peter, or the call of Saul, the persecutor. Every conversion is, in a sense, singular: no two are exactly alike, and yet any one conversion is a type of others. The case of the dying thief is much more similar to our conversion than it is dissimilar; in point of fact, his case may be regarded as typical, rather than as an extraordinary incident. So I shall use it at this time. May the Holy Spirit speak through it to the encouragement of those who are ready to despair!
Remember, beloved friends, that our Lord Jesus, at the time he saved this malefactor, was at his lowest. His glory had been ebbing out in Gethsemane, and before Caiaphas, and Herod, and Pilate; but it had now reached the utmost low-water mark.
Stripped of his garments, and nailed to the cross, our Lord was mocked by a ribald crowd, and was dying in agony: then was he “numbered with the transgressors,” and made as the offscouring of all things. Yet, while in that condition, he achieved this marvellous deed of grace. Behold the wonder wrought by the Saviour when emptied of all his glory, and hanged up a spectacle of shame upon the brink of death! How certain is it it that he can do great wonders of mercy now, seeing that he has returned unto his glory, and sitteth upon the throne of light! “He is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them.” If a dying Saviour saved the thief, my argument is, that he can do even more now that he liveth and reigneth. All power is given unto him in heaven and in earth; can anything at this present time surpass the power of his grace?
It is not only the weakness of our Lord which makes the salvation of the penitent thief memorable; it is the fact that the dying malefactor saw it before his very eyes. Can you put yourself into his place, and suppose yourself to be looking upon one who hangs in agony upon a cross? Could you readily believe him to be the Lord of glory, who would soon come to his kingdom? That was no mean faith which, at such a moment, could believe in Jesus as Lord and King. If the apostle Paul were here, and wanted to add a New Testament chapter to the eleventh of Hebrews, he might certainly commence his instances of remarkable faith with this thief, who believed in a crucified, derided, and dying Christ, and cried to him as to one whose kingdom would surely come. The thief’s faith was the more remarkable because he was himself in great pain, and bound to die. It is not easy to exercise confidence when you are tortured with deadly anguish. Our own rest of mind has at times been greatly hindered by pain of body. When we are the subjects of acute suffering it is not easy to exhibit that faith which we fancy we possess at other times. This man, suffering as he did, and seeing the Saviour in so sad a state, nevertheless believed unto life eternal. Herein was such faith as is seldom seen.
Recollect, also, that he was surrounded by scoffers. It is easy to swim with the current, and hard to go against the stream. This man heard the priests, in their pride, ridicule the Lord, and the great multitude of the common people, with one consent, joined in the scorning; his comrade caught the spirit of the hour, and mocked also, and perhaps he did the same for a while; but through the grace of God he was changed, and believed in the Lord Jesus in the teeth of all the scorn. His faith was not affected by his surroundings; but he, dying thief as he was, made sure his confidence. Like a jutting rock, standing out in the midst of a torrent, he declared the innocence of the Christ whom others blasphemed. His faith is worthy of our imitation in its fruits. He had no member that was free except his tongue, and he used that member wisely to rebuke his brother malefactor, and defend his Lord. His faith brought forth a brave testimony and a bold confession. I am not going to praise the thief, or his faith, but to extol the glory of that grace divine which gave the thief such faith, and then freely saved him by its means. I am anxious to show how glorious is the Saviour””that Saviour to the uttermost, who, at such a time, could save such a man, and give him so great a faith, and so perfectly and speedily prepare him for eternal bliss. Behold the power of that divine Spirit who could produce such faith on soil so unlikely, and in a climate so unpropitious.
”“From a sermon of C.H. Spurgeon preached on April 7, 1889