The Triumph of the Cross: The Passover from Death to Life
by Fr. Rufus Pereira
In a certain city ten serial unrelated murders were committed with no apparent motive. For more than a year the police were unable to nab the perpetrators of these heinous crimes. Then one of them made a slip and the whole gang of four young men was caught. They belonged surprisingly to affluent and respected families and the only motive for their dastardly act was their boast of having succeeded in committing the perfect crime. The whole country was repulsed by their 'exploit' and more so by their revolting motive and blasť attitude. In delivering his verdict at their trial, the judge commented that this was one case in which he felt pleased to pass sentence of execution, because these young prisoners were not human beings but monsters. Their leader however received the sentence with a cynical smile.
While he was in prison, however, a prayer group of that town was sending him and his fellow convicts Bibles and other Christian literature (see footnote). At first he just flung them all aside. But finally, just to pass his time and out of sheer curiosity, he began to read them. The unexpected, or rather the expected, happened. In a letter to his mother he wrote, "Mummy, many people are sending me all types of reading material, just to distract me, I suppose, and keep me busy, and perhaps even to change myself. But the only book I now read is the Holy Bible." The day of his execution dawned. As he was being led to the scaffold, the magistrate asked him whether he had any last wish. "Yes", he replied, "I would like to read the Holy Bible," and a copy was given to him. He opened it to Chapter 23 of Luke's Gospel, and read verses 42 and 43 aloud with great devotion. Why did he choose these two verses in particular?
One of the strange details in the Passion Narrative is the statement that "two robbers (or criminals) were crucified with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left." (Mt 27:38; Mk 15:27) or as John puts it, "They crucified him with two others, one on either side with Jesus in the middle" (Jn 19:18). And as the chief priests and scribes, the passers-by and the soldiers jeered at Jesus, taunting him to come down from the cross, if he was the Christ, the Son of God, and King of Israel, and save himself, for then they would believe in him, the Gospel adds, "Even those who were crucified with him sneered at him in the same way" (Mt 27:38,44; Mk 15:27,32).
Luke specifies that finally it was just one of the criminals hanging there that insisted, "Are you not the Christ? Then save yourself and us as well." And when Jesus did not comply with his demands, he hurled insults at Jesus. But the other spoke up and reprimanded his comrade in crime and punishment, "Have you no fear of God at all? You got the same sentence as he did, but in our case we deserved it. We are paying for what we did, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then turning towards Jesus, as it begins to dawn upon him that Jesus is being crucified not allegedly for his misdeeds, but really for their transgressions, he cries out with a superhuman act of faith, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." And with compassionate assurance Jesus guarantees him, "Indeed, I promise you today you will be with me in paradise" (Lk 23:42,43).
After reading these two verses tenderly to himself, the young convict closed the Bible and handed it back to the magistrate. He went up to the scaffold and was hanged. People still regard him as the most horrible criminal who has deservedly gone to his place of damnation. But to the few who were privileged to know what really happened in his last days in prison and on the way to the scaffold, he was like the 'Good Criminal' taken up to Paradise with the Lord Jesus for, as St Paul says, "there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1).
Even though all the four Gospels mention that Jesus was crucified with two other (sic!) criminals, as if to accentuate that in the eyes of the onlookers there was nothing to distinguish Jesus from those criminals, and that greater than the physical pain of the crucifixion was the ignominy of being reckoned with evil doers (Is 53:4,12), John draws our attention to the fact that the crucified Jesus is placed between the two crucified criminals - who in a way represent us, while Mathew specifies deliberately that one of them was on the left and the other was on the right, as if to remind us of what Jesus will say to us at the last judgment (Mt 25:31-46), and Luke in particular expatiates on all this, by giving us the conversation among Jesus and the two criminals, which is in a way the highlight of the Lukan Passion narrative.
For we too are to decide on which side of the cross we would rather be: on the left side, wanting like the 'bad criminal' to be saved or set free from all our problems, sicknesses and burdens - at any cost, and when that does not take place, we become gloomy and angry, even cursing God in bitter despair, as it did happen, sorry to say, at the funeral of a young girl. As her body was being taken away for burial, the mother, a daily communicant, began to scream hysterically and even curse God.
Or would we rather be on the right side, fully aware of and even praising God for our sufferings and misfortunes, but putting our trust in the Lord who, we are equally certain, will give us the final victory even over death, as it did happen at the funeral of a young man. His family and friends spent the whole previous night praising and thanking God and the funeral procession the next day turned out to be a jubilant triumphant one, with myself even accompanying the hymns on my piano-accordion. The Parish Priest, who happened to be the late Fr. Jonathan Dias, commented in his Sunday homily that this was the first truly Christian funeral that he witnessed, while non-Christians asked their Catholic colleagues, "Tell us more about your religion because, if it makes you joyful even in the midst of sorrow, there must be something in it."
For if Jesus had come down from the cross and 'saved' himself (that is the wisdom of the world), we would have instead been crucified to that cross ourselves, with our sins unforgiven unto eternal damnation. But because Jesus remained on that cross and died for all humanity (that is the foolishness of God), we don't have to die any more - except to our own sins, but will instead rise again with him to a new life. That is why Paul could cry out, "Death, where is your sting, where is your victory?" (1Cor 15:55). For the death of Jesus on the Cross has destroyed death, the last of man's enemies (1Cor 15:26), and brought about its first triumph in his fellow crucified - the good criminal - passing from eternal death to everlasting life, from earth below to paradise above.
As Jesus said, "When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself." (Jn 12:32), eliciting from the same Paul his double profession of faith, "He loved me, and He sacrificed himself for me" (Gal 2:20), and "When we share his suffering, we are reproducing the pattern of his death, and will thus experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). When, like Judas who commented about the precious ointment poured over the feet of Jesus, "Why this waste?" (Jn 12:4,5), we too are tempted to remark about his passion, "Could not have God thought of a cheaper and more respectable way of man's redemption than Calvary's Cross," we will realize from the above Passion narrative, especially as depicted in the most talked about film of the decade, 'The Passion of the Christ' [see The Passion Study Guides], that God planned our redemption so that we could neither miss nor mistake its true and profound meaning and purpose.
Let us therefore joyfully proclaim this crucial mystery of our faith, 'Dying, You destroyed our Death! Rising, You restored our life'.
Note: A letter of Edwin Joseph from Central Prison Bangalore appeared in the September 2004 issue of Charisindia, expressing his gratitude for a copy of the magazine being sent to him every month - the first Catholic magazine he had read in prison - which made such a deep impression on his mind and so stirred up his soul, leading him to amend and change his life, that he requested all the readers of Charisindia to pass on their copy of the magazine, after having read it, to the nearest prison, so that all those languishing inside it like him may experience the forgiving, healing and liberating love of God.
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Led by the Spirit reproduced with permission from Charisindia. Copyright © 2004-2005 Fr. Rufus Pereira. All rights reserved.