Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Saturday, February 27, 2021

The Friendship of Christ, Chapter 12: Christ Our Friend Crucified (second and third words)

The three remaining installments for this chapter each cover two of the last words of Christ. Erin and I will each take a word; here I write about the second, and she'll take the third.

Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us." The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, "Have you no fear of God, seeing that you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied to him, "Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise." (Luke 23:39-43)

All four gospels mention that Jesus was crucified between two criminals. Matthew and Mark note that both criminals abuse Jesus, John notes that their legs were broken to hasten their deaths. If these three accounts of Jesus's life were all that came down to us, we would know nothing of the drama of the Good Thief. 

Luke, however, recounts two exchanges: one between the criminals, and then between one of them and Jesus. Even John, standing at the foot of the cross, didn't hear or remember this detail, and indeed, a crucified man can barely get enough air to project his voice without excruciating pain. So Luke's source for this incident, as for the rest of his gospel, must have been someone who was so close to Jesus as to catch and hold every word: Mary.

Benson does not mention this detail, but his next section (on Jesus's word to Mary) reflects on how her share in Jesus's suffering makes her more truly our mother than her physical maternity of his body. And here, through Luke's account, we see her cherishing and honoring a man who who died publicly shamed and dismissed by everyone down to the three other gospel writers.

Benson focuses on the movement of grace in the soul, even (or perhaps especially) in a moment of particular horror and pain: " the silence, the Grace of God and the habits of the past have been at work together." The habits he refers to are of the other criminal, fighting and cursing to the end, but the line in isolation struck me as an example of how grace does often work in our lives: not generally through a blast of blinding light, as with St. Paul, but through what is ordinary, even to the habits we've fallen into. We do a thing one day, something we've done a thousand times before; we pass something we pass every day -- a tree, a building, a person -- and suddenly it is revealed to us as we've never seen it before. We perceive it, even darkly, as through a glass, as God perceives it. And we are aware of grace, whether or not we choose to allow it free rein.

This openness, even the slightest of cracks, is all. "...This man to whom [grace] came was not wholly self-centred," Benson said of the thief; "there was still in him enough receptivity for Grace to enter." Dante, in his Inferno, places the soul of a man still alive on earth, but dead to grace, in the very depths of Hell. This is poetic and literary license, but the horror of it prompts any self-aware reader to examine her conscience and beg Jesus for a heart of flesh, not stone.

But we want to have our spiritual cake and eat it too, what Benson calls "attempting to change God rather than ourselves", rendering ourselves "indispensable to the Divine Cause." And of course, reducing the spiritual life to a human scale of ambition and progress is a recipe for failure, even if externally the failure looks like success and prosperity and productivity. Those are not good benchmarks, for the plain reason that they are not what Jesus asks of us. 

Finally, for whatever reason -- a sudden flash of self-knowledge, as in Benson's example, or the rock bottom of pain and degradation, as with the Thief -- all we have left to offer Jesus is nothing. We can give nothing to him, and ask of him only that he remember us. And we wait miserably for the humiliation we know is in store for the person who gives up her very self.

"And then," says Benson, "by one more bewildering paradox, all is done; and the soul in that instant has what she desires. She has prayed that she may learn to serve, and with the very utterance of that prayer finds that she has been taught to reign. For she has learned the lesson of Him who was made in the form of a servant that He might rule kings -- of him who was meek and umble of heart, and she has found rest to her soul. For His arms are that instant about her, His kiss is on her lips, and His Words in her ear -- "To-day thou shalt be with me in Paradise!"

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