Thirty-Ninth Day of Lent

Luke 23:32-49 
32 Two other men, both criminals, were also led out with him to be executed. 33 When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him there, along with the criminals – one on his right, the other on his left. 34 Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they divided up his clothes by casting lots.

35 The people stood watching, and the rulers even sneered at him. They said, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.’

36 The soldiers also came up and mocked him. They offered him wine vinegar 37 and said, ‘If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.’

38 There was a written notice above him, which read: this is the king of the jews.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’

42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’

43 Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.

47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

When I was a child Good Friday was such a sombre day and one which the whole of my community seemed to take part in. The biggest event of all was the Good Friday Stations of the Cross service in our local parish church. The place was packed full, with standing room only, for a church service that took hours.

The Stations is a fourteen step dramatisation of the final events of these final days of Holy Week. It begins at the trial of Jesus and progressively moves through each step like a mini-pilgrimage. Along the way there are readings and prayers and space for reflection. As you might imagine it is a deeply solemn event (and for a child like me, very boring too.) But everyone was there, everyone was wearing black, and all the statues in the church were covered as we all made an effort to enter into the suffering of Aoine na Chéasta, or Good Friday.

At the beginning of each station the priest would say a prayer to prepare us for the time at that part of the story, something like, “We adore you O Christ, and praise you” and we would reply “Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world.”

Simon of Cyrene who was forced to carry the cross was recalled, as was Veronica who wiped Jesus face with a towel. Most poignant of all, and the thing I remember most clearly, is the painful recollection of the first, second and third fall as Jesus collapses under the weight of the wooden beams. He is then stripped and then nailed to that cross, where he dies. Each step recalled at length an all its detail.

As a child the drama of this Good Friday service was undeniable even though it was very long. There was also something significant about a community wide commemoration. The shops were closed, the bookies and the bars also. There was no cinema and no other form of the usual entertainment in a small town in Ireland in the 70s, for this day was marked seriously and with great solemnity. I can look back on it now with the benefit of years, and whilst yes I acknowledge all sorts of problems with the church and its exercise of power, there is still a part of me that longs for a serious, deep and considered reflection on the events of the cross with fellow believers.

So I’ve been re-reading this story again and again, and one thing that comes home to me this year is the exchange between Jesus and the robber hanging on the adjacent cross.

Wednesday of last week we considered the story of the healing of Legion, the man who was possibly a former soldier who hid out in the tombs. Jesus turned the usual practice of violence on its head by asking the man his name. It’s a beautiful and humanising thing Jesus does in the face of terrible pain and suffering.

In this reading I’m struck by v42 and the criminal who turns to Jesus and simply says, “Jesus.” There is no ascription of a divine name, not honorific, but here, at the very end of his life he is given the simple name his parents gave him at the beginning. Stripped naked, suffering at the hands of the violent authorities, here at his death he identifies fully with the lowest of society, but still he is concerned for others. His name also reminds us that the equivalent name in Hebrew is Joshua, and it means “the Lord saves,” and so he promises that this criminal will be blessed.

The Act of Contrition, said at the beginning of the Stations of the Cross

O my God, my Redeemer,
behold me here at Thy feet.

From the bottom of my heart
I am sorry for all my sins, 
because by them I have offended Thee, 
Who art infinitely good.
I will die rather than offend thee again.