(Christ and the good thief - Titian)
"Today, you will be with me in Paradise." (Lk 23: 43)
Sunday Word: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/112413.cfm
Sm 5: 1-3
Col 1: 12 – 20
Lk 23: 35-43
Our national holiday of Thanksgiving is nearly upon us. While the image of the day conjures up Pilgrims and Puritans, in the end the day is somewhat all about the food, unless of course you happen to be an unfortunate turkey. Therefore, this is not a day to worry about calories and diets but to enjoy the feast.
Yet, as that feast is prepared, the first thing that needs to happen is to gather family and friends to homes and tables. Whether those folks travel great distances by planes, trains, and automobiles or come from close by, the gathering of people is a necessary element of that day. Most often, it is the same people who gather each year, with an occasional visitor now and then, so before the food, comes a spirit of gratitude. No matter how easy or challenging the last year has been, the ultimate virtue of this day is one of thanksgiving. Thankfulness to be together, thankfulness for the freedom we enjoy and so often take for granted in this country and gratitude ultimately to the God who has called us all into life. It goes without saying that now is time for the feast!
This weekend, with the close of both the liturgical year and the Year of Faith, we mark the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. The title is long and not without implications of grand things. Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all humankind and of all creation. The bonds of death and the power of evil have lost the battle and will in the end be destroyed by this “King” of the Universe.
With an image such as that we may feel more fear and trembling rather than any desire to gather close to this King. But, the Gospel image this Sunday of this crucified “King of the Jews” is one that gives us pause.
In the fourth century of Christianity we find a familiar quote from St. Cyril of Jerusalem about the reception of the Holy Eucharist: “Make a throne of your hands in which to receive the King.” Clearly, the reception of Communion in the hand was a familiar practice among Christians before these words were spoken. It remained the norm for reception for hundreds of years beyond and so was returned in our own day about forty years ago.
The point of the practice is this. In the reception of Holy Communion we do not receive a thing – a piece of unleavened bread. We receive a person – the Lord Jesus Christ, our King as St. Cyril reminds us, in his true risen presence. This King now will sit upon the throne of our hands. Have you given that much thought?
He feeds us with his own person for the King is our food. What sort of King would be so concerned about his sheep, as we see King David called a shepherd in the first reading, to be so invested in his subjects as to lay down his life for them? What King has ever died for his citizens? Not an earthly one to be sure.
However, from the cross, this Jesus speaks not words of judgment or issues edicts and proclamations. He turns to the thief next to him and speaks words of mercy: “Amen, I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.” It is the food of mercy and forgiveness to an act of faith in Jesus expressed by the thief: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
This King feeds us with an invitation to gather with him around an altar of mercy and love. We know the origin of the Eucharist – born of a sacred meal but directly associated with an even greater sacrifice less than twenty four hours later – that of the Cross. So we see in Jesus’ sacrifice that Body he spoke of the night before: “Take and eat – take and drink my body and my blood.” This crucified, shepherd King, now raised in glory wants to feed us for without this food, we have no life. And “life” here is our ultimate union with this King in Heaven; Eternal life.
From the cross, not only words spoken to a repentant thief, Jesus offers us – take this body and this blood. Feed on it.
Like our Thanksgiving meals, our response is to gather, to be thankful, to be nourished, and to go and feed others with the good news of mercy and conversion.
How many are hungry that we never see? Though it may feel a bit unusual at first, maybe an extra chair around your Thanksgiving tables this Thursday could be added – a throne for the King who will feed you with more than any table could ever hold. Make room for this shepherd, this crucified Lord, this King risen in glory who feeds you.
Almighty ever-living God,
whose will is to restore all things
in your beloved Son, the King of the universe,
grant, we pray,
that the whole creation, set free from slavery,
may render your majesty service
and ceaselessly proclaim your praise.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.
(Roman Missal: Collect of Solemnity)
(Roman Missal: Collect of Solemnity)