When I was a kid, every year my family would go to a county fair in Pennsylvania, about forty minutes to the east of Scranton. The highlight of the evening for me would be the ride on a Ferris wheel with my dad: until, that is, the car started to rock. Things would always start well: we’d wait our turn, get into the car and start our slow ascent to the top. Without fail, the car would stop at the very top of its rotation and we’d have a great view over the countryside: in the fading light, we could see farms, mountains, forests and fields and the lights of Scranton beginning to brighten. And then the car would start to rock as people got on and off: just a little bit, and then a little bit more, and then a swing as we jolted forward just a few feet for another car to be unloaded and loaded. Of course, looking back it wasn’t all that big of a deal, but for an eight-year-old, this rocking would cause all my fears of heights to come rushing back. I would go from great joy at being on top of the world – and then the moment would end, crashing down around me due to my own insecurities.
And so it is for Jesus in today’s Gospel. Perhaps between breaths on the cross we can imagine Jesus looking out at Jerusalem, the city he loves. He sees the buildings of Jerusalem rising up above the hills and can’t help but remember the moments of joy as a child on pilgrimage with Mary and Joseph. Maybe he thinks about his moments of learning in the Temple, or recalls just days ago he entered into Jerusalem while receiving a hero’s welcome.
Looking beyond Jerusalem, Jesus would have been able to see the road leading into the city. This road was the place of any number of wonderful memories. We have heard about many of them throughout this last year. The lepers cleansed. A blind man sees A widow’s son raised. Preaching mercy. Offering forgiveness. Dining with sinners. Teaching in the Temple. Providing an example of how to pray.
But back to reality: Jesus is on the cross, nailed there, abandoned by eleven of his closest friends, betrayed by the twelfth, embarrassed by a religious kangaroo court and then beaten at the hands of an empire desperate to keep control. Quite literally, then, one of the men hanging next to him adds insult to injury. He mocks Jesus for not being who he said he was, mocks him for being abandoned by God, mocks him for being strong enough to help others, but not himself! We too know this feeling: one moment on the top of our games, praised – getting things right – and then because of a misunderstanding, an illness, an off-handed comment, we are cast out by a friend, in a relationship, at work: we are all alone again, the whole world crashing down on us.
So Jesus hangs there, his mission a total failure, with a sarcastic title above him: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. And at that moment, there is only one person who still thinks that Jesus being a king is worth anything: the second thief.
The thief thus takes a chance, asking for the Lord to remember him – a sinner – when He comes into the Kingdom of God. Jesus, hanging from the cross, breathing his dying breaths, responds in an extraordinary way, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
The Feast of Christ the King asks us to do what the good thief did: have the courage to see Jesus and not ourselves as the King. Recognizing Jesus as king means looking at the at the cross as the beginning and ending points of our lives: no matter how many lepers we heal, no matter how many people we feed or friends we make, true love will always lead us to cross: it will call from us a love that breaks our heart over and over again.
We already know some crosses: a parent stricken with cancer, a brother in trouble with the law, a spouse who loses a job. These are the crosses that we can expect. The truly revolutionary moment in our Christian lives, however, comes when we begin to seek out the Crosses of others: to search to enter into the messiness of the lives of people we don’t take care of because of family ties or the loyalty of friendship. Christian greatness is when we find the thieves who hang in public and decide to hang with them: when we get put up on the cross for all to mock, that is the time we ought to have the courage to hang there with them and call out to Jesus, “Remember us, when you come into your kingdom.”
The great temptation represented by the bad thief today is to reject the world as hopeless, as unable to be change, and to therefore care for only ourselves. The good thief, on the other hand, realizes that when are suffering for the sake of love of neighbor, we share in the very life of Jesus. When we suffer because of love we are reminded that the wrong question is “Where is my kingdom?” Christian faith in the world isn’t about a question, but an answer: “Jesus, remember us all, when you come into your kingdom!”
As the followers of the Lord, we are called to spread not just good news, but the best of all news: we follow Jesus Christ the king, who rules through the force of love, a love that when rejected, dies and rises again. This is the love we follow the King who climbed up on the cross because that is where He could find us. Today and every day, Jesus the King finds us on our own crosses, takes us down, and then points us to the crosses of others. Just as the Good Thief realized Whom he encountered on the cross – the King of the World – so may we this week have the same encounter. And, once seeing the King on His Cross, let us then spread his message of total self-giving to all we meet: because of the Cross, Jesus has shown us that he will always be faithful to us, faithful to us until he brings all of us, on our own crosses, into paradise.