“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Luke 23:42)
We begin the liturgy on this Palm Sunday with Christ’s grand entrance into Jerusalem. We sing Christ’s praises as the crowds did 2000 years ago, and we enter rejoicing because we are indeed praising our Lord and king. We wave those palm branches to herald Christ’s entrance into the City of David, but as much as we obsess about these simple branches that we can get off any tree in South Florida, they are meaningless and of little value unless they remind us that just as Christ entered Jerusalem with waving palms, we need to allow Christ to enter our hearts during this Holy Week. We obsess about simple branches when every single Sunday, and every day for that matter, we give away something far more valuable which is the Body of Christ in the Eucharist. Priorities. Then we spend most of the Mass shaping the palm branches into crosses. That’s fine. I’m glad we have the cross on our minds because it is something that we cannot ignore during Holy Week and these branches that we form into crosses help us to remember this central reality of the Paschal Mystery: the cross.
This past Friday, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, celebrated Mass in the chapel of the Casa Santa Marta where he has been staying since his election with the workers of the house, the Vatican gardeners, and the street sweepers who clean St. Peter’s square. Now I’ve stayed at this house and prayed in this chapel and there’s only one way in. When everyone had gathered before the Mass and was praying, the Holy Father slipped in and sat in the back praying silently with the people without anyone noticing except the photographer who took the picture. When he got up for Mass and started preaching, he talked about the cross and made the point that Christ didn’t die “for all” in as much as he died “for each and every person” and if he died for “each of us” then “each of us” must say “yes” to him. The cross requires a response from those who gaze upon it. We can wear it around our necks, hang it in our homes, see it in popular art work, but we cannot ignore the challenge of the cross. It challenges us to respond to the great love that pours forth from it. The Son of God. Dead. On a cross. How can we not respond?
One man who did respond was the repentant thief crucified next to the Lord. Now I’ve read this gospel countless times privately and publicly from the pulpit, but I don’t know what came over me when I read it last night at my first vigil Mass. I was proclaiming the gospel and when I got to the part of “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom,” I started to get teary eyed. And when I got to the part where the Lord responded “Today you will be with me in paradise,” I could hardly read anymore. These words aren’t just words on a page, they are the story of our salvation and we must live them during these holy days. The story of the repentant thief is our story because who among us hasn’t been desperate for God’s mercy at some point in our lives. This thief recognized that he was justly condemned and that Christ was not. He also recognized who Jesus was and asked for his mercy. It was a Hail Mary pass if you will, one last effort to be forgiven, and that small opening in our hearts is all God needs to totally transform our lives. If this is how God treats a thief, what blessings does he have in store for us?
We are all the repentant thief. We are all in need of his mercy and forgiveness, and we all yearn to hear those blessed words: “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Christ is basically telling this man what he tells each of us: it doesn’t matter where you’ve been or what you’ve done, I will forgive you! What else could we possibly ask for this Holy Week? During this holiest of weeks, may we feel the same passion and love that our Lord felt for us. May we live this Holy Week as we walk with Christ, pray with Christ, suffer with Christ, die to our old selves with Christ, and rise to new life with Christ. My friends, as Christians, we cannot ignore the cross, for we are called to respond to its challenge. As we stand before the glorious cross today, how will we respond?