Offered by Father Matthew Dallman for the Parish of Tazewell County on the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A, 2017.
As I spoke last Sunday, there are seven sayings by Jesus from the Cross in the four books by the evangelists. These seven sayings are also called “the Seven Last Words,” and each of these, individually and as a group, have been the subject of much reflection, speculation, and prayer over the course of the nearly two-thousand-year history of the Christian Church.
If we recall the image of Jesus Christ given to us by Jesus Himself—that He is the true Vine—then these Seven Last Words can be thought of as seven “leaves” of the Vine. We can carry the image still further when we remember that a vine, such as grow grapes, are fastened to a structure, even a wooden structure, both so that the vine develops properly and so that its leaves provide shade to the fruits, to the grapes. Indeed our Jesus, the true Vine, was fastened to the wood of the cross, and Christians have been finding shade under His leaves, His Last Words, ever since, even as we are in this season of Lent.
The second of His Last Words was recorded by Saint Luke in the twenty-third chapter of his Gospel. Jesus was crucified with two criminals, one on His right and one on His left. When one of the criminals confessed his faith in Christ and asked Jesus to remember him, Jesus said: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Can we imagine the shelter this provided the criminal? Can we fathom how this quenched the criminal’s thirst? As I imagine this moment, I see Jesus looking directly at the criminal—looking at him with the most loving, comforting, and penetrating eyes—Jesus’ eyes looking directly at the criminal, so directly as to be felt deep in the soul. Jesus would have had to turn His head, stretch His neck, something like would have caused Him still more pain. Jesus looked with His divine eyes revealing His divine heart—a heart that has loved this criminal already, and so promptly responds with a tremendous promise: “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” Not you might be with me; not, “You will be with me if . . .” Nor is it that the criminal will be with the angels, or with other souls—undoubtedly the case, but the promise by Jesus is that in Paradise the most immediate presence will be that of Jesus Himself.
To this criminal who confessed his sins, who was a true penitent, Jesus was the true confessor—and indeed the Church has rightly seen in this moment the basis for the Sacrament of Reconciliation—of Confession and Penance, one of the Seven Sacraments. For when we confess our sins to a Priest using the form provided by the Church, Jesus acts and absolves the contrite person through the Priest—removing separation between the person and God, restoring the person to the fullness of their baptism. Just like the criminal on his cross, the burden of our sins nail us to a cross. And so it is only when we look to the true Cross, to Jesus the true Vine fastened to it, and in looking to Him confessing what we have done that has separated us from Him, that he provides the true Peace. If hope was still possible for this criminal, can anyone despair? Jesus is generous, swift, and immediate in His love.
This Second Word of Jesus from the cross provides a wonderful commentary on our Gospel passage from Saint John, his description of the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman. The conversation between Jesus and the woman at the well is more drawn out than the conversation between Jesus and the criminal, but the underlying dynamic is the same. A conversation with Jesus is filled with loving grace. Jesus seeks us out first, and invites us to respond to him, as he coaxed the woman to respond to Him and begin to see Him for Who He was—indeed the Living Water that quenches all thirst.
And just as the presence of Jesus with the criminal inspired the criminal to confess his sins and profess faith in the salvation of Jesus, the presence of Jesus—physical as well as His presence through the conversation itself, hearing His words—drew in the woman closer and closer, so that she says, “Sir, give me this water, that I may not thirst.” Jesus tests her by saying, “Go, call your husband.” The woman does not deceive Jesus, but being convicted speaks honestly—“I have no husband”—in effect a confession of sin. Just as the criminal’s sins undoubtedly weighed him down, the woman was bearing the weight of her sins.
Again, how generous, how swift, and how immediate is the forgiveness to Jesus to those who are honest with Him. From His cross, he already forgave all those who yelled “Crucify Him!” Now he forgives the contrite criminal, and in our Gospel, the Samaritan woman. Certainly this teaches that the remission and forgiveness of our sins begins in recognizing Who He is, which leads to intimate conversation with Him, and, if we are honest with Him, the removal of separation from Him, which is forgiveness.
Yet let us see again the relationship between forgiveness and His presence. It is Jesus who forgives only when we recognize His presence—indeed when we see Him as the true Vine, whose leaves provide us shade, which is the peace and unity of that heavenly City where with the Father and the Holy Spirit He lives and reigns, now and for ever. Amen.
Cover image “Crucifixion of Jesus” by Dionisius is licensed under CC BY 2.0 / Cropped from original.