Friday, April 6, 2012

Good Friday: Thieves in paradise

Reading: Luke 23:43

"I tell you this: today you will be with me in Paradise"

As Jesus hangs on the Cross, one of the thieves who is hanging beside Him (tradition tells us his name was Dismis), pleaded with the Lord to remember him when He entered His kingdom, which will be given Him by the Father. Jesus, ministering to others even in the midst of His own agony, assures the paradoxically-named "good thief" that he would be in "paradise" that very day with Him.

For Jews of Jesus’ day “paradise” was that part of Hades thought to be the abode of blessed souls until their resurrection, with some even understanding it to be a heavenly place. Most of the early church fathers, taking their cue from this Jewish belief of the late temple period, also wrote about such a place, which we call “the limbo of the fathers,” where the souls of just men and women await the resurrection of the dead. Indeed, an in ancient homily for Holy Saturday, the preacher, who is unknown to us, tells us about Jesus’ descent to “paradise” and His encounter there with our first parents. In this ancient homily, the Lord approaches Adam and Eve “bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of [Christ] Adam… struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: ‘My Lord be with you all.’ Christ answered him: ‘And with your spirit.’ [Christ] took [Adam] by the hand and raised him up, saying: ‘Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.’” Christ then says to Adam, “I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now by my own authority command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell.”

However, in the best English translations of the Apostles Creed, which has its origins in the very early Church of Rome as a baptismal creed, the Latin words descendit ad inferos, is translated as "descended into hell," not "descended to the dead." On this basis, Hans Urs Von Balthasar argued that believing Christ only went to "paradise" understood and articulated as the "limbo of the fathers" falls short of the mystery of the depths Christ endured for our redemption, which is nothing other than full realization of God’s love for us. Balthasar provocatively held that Christ had to have suffered what Dr. Alyssa Pitstick, in her critique of Balthasar’s theology of Holy Saturday described as, "the full force of what would have awaited sinful mankind without a redeemer,” namely “complete rejection by the Father without hope of mercy or reconciliation. By descending into this utter abandonment, Christ bore the punishment humanity deserved, thereby manifesting the extreme extent of God's love."

The way around this important conundrum is Dismis himself, the thief, justly punished for his crime, who says to the other thief who is pleading with Jesus to get all of them down off their crosses, "we are paying the penalty for what we have done. But this man has done nothing wrong," who recognized Jesus in his moment of greatest need as the fulfillment of his deepest desire with these words: "Remember me when you come into your kingdom," showing us that in his last moments, through the experience of the Cross, this thief grasped the mystery of faith.

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