The words which Jesus speaks from the Cross are words of supreme authority, because the one who speaks them is the Son of God. Even as He dies the shameful death of a criminal, He speaks as the true Word: This was why the Jews sought all the more to kill him, because he … called God his own Father, making Himself equal with God. And the words which Jesus speaks to the penitent thief are prefaced from his own mouth with an asseveration of their significance and which S. Luke records only six times in his Gospel, and nowhere else addresses to an individual: Truly, I say to you … The thief in the mental and physical agony of a cruel and public death turns to Jesus and asks of him remember me, when you come into your kingdom; with no power to alter his fate or know his destiny, he places himself with faith into the mercy of Jesus, in the face of what is entirely fearful and unknown. And as S. Ambrose comments on this passage: More abundant is the favour shown than the request made. For Jesus reveals to him, and so to us, the gracious reward of his faith: today you will be with me in Paradise.
Human beings do not know their own fate: even when the most spiritual of philosophies charges the world with intimations of immortality, we cannot discover of our own volition where our ultimate happiness lies, where beatitude is to be found. Christian theology makes this clear in the hierarchy by which it arranges the virtues which describe authentically human living: Aristotle’s cardinal virtues of justice and temperance, fortitude and prudence, take us as far as we can go with our own resources, which even the philosopher himself says are most valuable only insofar as they contribute to the contemplation of God. But what was unknown to the virtuous pagans is declared with authority by Jesus from the dereliction of the Cross: our true end is to be with Him in Paradise, a beatitude which we receive only through our relationship with Him, one which is characterized by the theological virtues of faith, hope and love.
Christians receive in Baptism the grace to know and enjoy the true end of human living, eternal life in the loving presence of God. The office for Holy Baptism in the Prayer Book sets out this teaching in this prayer for the candidate:
wash him and sanctify him with the Holy Ghost; that he, being delivered from thy wrath, may be received into the ark of Christ’s Church; and being stedfast in faith, joyful through hope, and rooted in charity, may so pass the waves of this troublesome world, that finally he may come to the land of everlasting life, there to reign with thee world without end;
See how carefully this prayer sets out the truth about what we are made for, the truth which Jesus teaches when he speaks from the Cross to the thief: through faith, hope and love, the virtues which S. Paul teaches us are the marks of Christian living, we pass through the trials of this life to our true homeland, where with Him we are to reign for ever – Today, you will be with me in paradise.
So Jesus speaks with divine authority when in his answer to the dying thief He discloses the truth about what it is to be human, the restoration to divine life which is brought about through faith in his death and resurrection. But he speaks not only with authority, but also with knowledge. S. Paul writes to the Galatians that he lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me. (Gal 2.20). Nowhere in the New Testament is Jesus spoken of as knowing the Father by faith, as even the greatest among the holy men and women of Israel knew Him. Jesus knows the Father because He has seen the Father (Jn 6.46): He knows Him as God with a perfect comprehension; He knows Him in his human nature, by virtue of His perfect union with the divine Word in the mystery of the incarnation. He therefore does not lack in the course of his earthly ministry that perfect and unclouded vision of the Father which is to be enjoyed by all the redeemed in heaven, and having that vision from the first moment of his conception he has always present to Him those for whom he died. Jesus speaks from the Cross to the thief out of a full and profound knowledge: knowledge of the gravity of sin which pains his soul with an anguish more painful than the physical suffering of his body, knowledge of every individual human being for whom He willingly offers Himself without stint for the sake of our salvation, knowledge which has its seat in His continuous contemplation of the Father’s face.
But this vision of God, this seeing of the Father, is not confined to the perfect sinless humanity of the Son: through the act of faith, we are graciously made participants in the same surpassing happiness. S. Paul writes to the Corinthians: If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied. This is not to dismiss the life we have now as an incidental prelude to what is to come, or to suggest as some of the earliest critics of Christianity supposed that it is impossible for the Christian to be a really committed citizen of the earthly city when the true Christian homeland is the life of heaven. It means that by his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ the Son of God has not only reversed for us the terrible and inevitable destruction of death, in the face of which we can only call out with the thief, Remember me when you come into your kingdom; He has raised our human nature and glorified it, so that when we receive our lives back from Him in the gracious gift of the Resurrection life, we receive our ultimate happiness and fulfilment in the vision of God face-to-face, children of God who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.
However, at this time we remain pilgrims on the way, pilgrims who at our Baptism promised to renounce the world, the flesh and the devil and to live stedfast in faith, joyful through hope and rooted in charity. The word of Jesus from the Cross to the dying penitent thief is the word which He speaks to all suffering sinners, who despairing of their own capacities in the face of the universal fate of death turn to Him in faith for the answer to the meaning of human life. And the answer which He gives is given out of the depth of his own compassionate suffering, his own willing embrace of the catastrophe of death in order that we might live with His life. He speaks with authority, because He is the Word of the Father; He speaks with knowledge, because He sees us in the face of the Father; He speaks with compassion, because in the abandonment of the Cross He knows the violent sundering of body and spirit, the shipwreck of purely human aspiration and ambition, which is the consequence of human sin. S. Paul writes to the Galatians: I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. May we live with the life of Christ, sustained and formed by the divine gift of faith, hope and love infused into our souls at our Baptism, until at last we come to reign with Him on high, when faith shall pass into vision, hope into possession and love transform us in the words of S. Peter into partakers of the divine nature itself.
Rev’d Canon Dr. Robin Ward, Principal of St Stephen’s House
27th January 2008