(Thomas Froese photo)
(The Hamilton Spectator – Thursday, March 29, 2018)
It was a Friday some 2,000 years ago and he was a hardened criminal with a sorry life. For what it was worth, that life must have played before his mind’s eye like a regrettable movie.
He was dying by asphyxiation, lack of oxygen. This is how criminals, would-be revolutionaries and others generally guilty of disturbing the peace of the empire died in ancient Rome. Crucify him. And him. And him.
Besides bleeding out, when you could no longer hold your own weight to push out another hopeless breath, your lungs eventually collapsed. It was a horrible and drawn-out public affair, such an execution.
We don’t know that criminal’s backstory. Was he a killer? A rapist? Just another violent troublemaker? What we know from the historic account is that Jesus, the Nazarene, the man of love and healing, the friend of sinners, hung on a cross beside him, broken.
“When you enter your kingdom, remember me,” is what that criminal finally said to Jesus, both of them drawing near to death. “Remember me.” It wasn’t much. But the response that followed was, “This day you will be with me in Paradise.”
Who can imagine it, what went through that criminal’s head, half-a-foot already in eternity, never knowing that his feeble request to be remembered would be remembered two millennia later?
You have to wonder too what went through the head of old John. John was that apostle of Jesus, the one who (long after the business of Jesus’ crucifixion and reported resurrection) was left by the authorities to rot on the island of Patmos, also like a common criminal.
It was John, commonly credited with writing the book of Revelation while on that island-prison, who had a vision that he could and couldn’t explain. He foresaw the everyday things humanity has lived with since the beginning of time, even death itself, all gone; the earth below, the heavens above, everything in between somehow gone for something new.
“I will wipe away every tear. There will be no more pain. I am making everything new!” is what John heard exclaimed in his wild vision.
Of course, you don’t need to walk out your door very far to see that there is still death and pain and plenty of tears around. To think that it will ever be otherwise would seem to play the part of a fool. So it’s easier to keep Easter’s celebration on the level of bunnies and baskets and coloured eggs.
But it seems to me that the historic Easter narrative – that Jesus lived and died and rose from the dead – and its associated hopes of new life for any of us, has its appeal because of its paradoxes. Even when Easter Sunday falls on April 1, a day for fools, the “good news,” what the ancient Greeks called the “gospel,” remains as present as the daily news.
A lost soul executed for his crimes, then invited to sit with a cool drink on the beaches of Paradise? An old island prisoner foresees some future world, some new Eden, some kingdom where every day might as well be a day to party? It really does seem too good to be true.
Which is to say that this doesn’t make it any less true. And through this understanding of God’s unrelenting love (he’s called the Hound of Heaven for a reason) we, any of us, can get a clearer picture of who we really are: fallen, yes, you might even say criminal, but made in God’s image too, in glory, just a little lower than the angels.
“Father forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing,” is what Jesus, the Messiah, said in his dying breaths on that Friday. “Forgive them.” These words also echo through history like an old clanging bell.
It seems that this is why of all the names that we might have been left with to remember that Friday of death, the name that stuck, strangely enough, is Good Friday.
And it seems that this is why it’s the cross – that old instrument of pain and suffering, that electric chair, that bloody guillotine – that has also remained through time as an unlikely symbol of God’s healing power in a broken world.