Simon de Vos and workshop Crucifixion
In this brief homily, I’d like to focus on the two people that hung on the cross next to Jesus, the good thief and the bad thief, which they’re commonly known as. I want us all to think about the reality that when we come to celebrate the Eucharist, this is the sacrifice of our Lord. We are here entering into the crucifixion, the passion, death, and resurrection of our Lord. Because of that, we can be very similar to the ones that were crucified with Christ because we’re witnessing his crucifixion. I just want you to imagine that now you have entered into this passion with Jesus and you’re hanging on the cross next to Him. The good thing is you get to choose which cross you’re on. Are you on the cross of the bad thief that rejects and insults Jesus and wants him to save his life, or are you with the good thief who is willing to accept the suffering of Christ and see who he truly is, the Son of God?
There are three phrases I want to focus on. One is of the good thief who says to the bad thief, “Have you no fear of God?” (Luke 23:40). The bad thief is commanding Jesus to not only get Himself miraculously off the cross but probably selfishly to get him off the cross as well. I think sometimes we can do that with Jesus, with our faith, with God. We can be demanding of God. We demand that life go our way. We demand that any suffering we have been taken away. We demand many things from God. He’s doing this from his side of the cross, and the good thief on the other side says this profound yet very confusing phrase for us, “Have you no fear of God?”
Pope St. Gregory the Great wanted to capture the spiritual dynamism of this phrase and this sentence. Fear of the Lord is the seventh gift of the Holy Spirit. We look at this as being a gift. We have a difficult time understanding this because we always associate fear with a bad thing, fear of death, fear of poison, and fear of danger. Fear we associate with the bad thing, but St. Gregory the Great will talk about how there is a holy fear, which is different. He says, ”Through the fear of the Lord we rise to piety, then from piety to knowledge, then from knowledge do we derive strength, then from the strength we gain counsel, then from counsel, we move toward understanding, and with intelligence toward wisdom, and thus, by the sevenfold grace of the spirit, there opens to us the end of the ascent, the entrance of life into heaven.” The entrance of life into heaven is fear of the Lord. This fear that is being talked about by the man on the cross is different than the fear that we are used to. There are two types of fear. This is the fear that is what’s called a filial fear. Filial means like family, a relationship-based fear. It’s like a fear of a child who loves their parents so much that they’re afraid to do anything wrong that would hurt them. Like a husband and wife who love each other so much that they would be afraid to do anything that would hurt each other. This is not a fear-based on punishment or based on threats. It’s not a fear of a slave for a master. This is a holy fear. This is a fear of awe. This is a fear of love.
As we hang upon the cross next to Jesus, which type of fear do we express? We hear in Psalm 111, “At the beginning of wisdom is fear of the Lord” (Psalm 111:10). This means that there ought to be a holy fear in us. Fear of the Lord means that God is beyond anything that we could understand and imagine. His love is beyond anything that we can imagine. That’s the fear the good thief is talking about. The bad thief thinks he knows Jesus. He thinks he knows. “Hey, because you’re a miracle worker because I’ve seen you do all these things, because you say that you’re the king, get down from the cross and bring me down with you.” It’s a completely different fear. He’s fearing only for himself, not for the Lord.
As we come before the celebration of the Eucharist every time we come to mass, we can ask ourselves, which fear am I operating under? Am I operating under fear for my own sake or is there a fear of the Lord, a reverence for never wanting to hurt him? When we come up to receive the Eucharist, do we have this holy fear of receiving the Lord, and grace, and receiving him in piety?
The second[phrase] is, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42). The good thief is asking Jesus, all he’s asking of him is to remember me. He knows that he’s not asking him to do anything other than the father’s will but just that he can be a part of that. In his remember me, he’s asking Jesus to be with him always. When we come before the mass, we can also have that same mindset: remember me, Lord. Don’t forget about me. That is contrary to the bad thief, who doesn’t care about a relationship with Jesus. He wants to get down from that cross. We care about our relationship with Jesus. We want him always to remember us. In the Eucharistic prayer he will say through my words, through the words of the priest, “Do this in remembrance of me,” because when we remember someone, when we call them to mind, there is a unity of being with them. The good thief just wanted to be remembered by Jesus. He didn’t want to try to get off the cross, he didn’t want to try to be excused for all of his sins, he just wanted to be remembered by Jesus.
Then, what Jesus says is the third phrase that I want to talk about, “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). If we approach Jesus with this holy reverence, with this awe, with this fear of the Lord, if we ask Jesus for nothing else but that he remembers us, he will respond, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The good thief saw Jesus. He may not even have known that much about him, but he saw his goodness, and he wanted just to be with Him, to relate with Him. The bad thief thought he knew everything about Jesus, but he didn’t care about Jesus. He just wanted to get off his cross. We come here and we ask the Lord to remember us. We hear the Lord’s promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” The Greek word that is used for ‘today’ not only means like today at this moment, but it means ‘always’, so always we will be with Him in paradise.
Today when we come forward to receive the Eucharist, we enter into heaven, but as we go forth from here, that today will be always, that He remains with us always.
As we enter now into this holiest of weeks, I just encourage you to make it a Holy Week. Make this a retreat for yourself. Do everything that you can to get rid of distractions. Cancel everything you can cancel. Make as much time as you can for prayer and reflection, and for just being silent with the Lord. If you have gotten rid of your Lenten resolutions of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, make it intensified during this week. Make it an intense week of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, so that during this Holy Week as we prepare ourselves for Easter, we, too, can have these three things that we say about God. That we have a holy fear of our Lord Jesus. This filial fear of not wanting to hurt Him or abandon Him. We ask that He may remember us always, and, finally, we will hear His voice today and always, “You will be with me in paradise.”