Monday, October 06, 2008
The film, the Passion of Christ unlike the Gospels, actually offers a possible explanation for why the Good Thief, Dysmas repents while hanging on the cross. Dysmas has been watching Jesus ever since they started carrying their crosses up to Calvary. Certainly throughout that process he was impressed by Jesus' patience and silent determination, his lack of anger, his docility. But only when he hears Jesus, in the midst of his horrible agony, forgive his persecutors does the thief's heart open up to God's grace. That heroic, unimaginable act of forgiveness, after all that Jesus has suffered, smashes to bits all his doubts about God's goodness, wisdom, and power. He realizes that God loves and forgives to the very end, without limits. And so, at that moment, without waiting or doubting or needlessly wrestling with his own unworthiness, he confidently entrusts his eternal salvation into Christ's hands. He says, "Lord, remember me when you come into your Kingdom!" And Jesus gladly assures this miserable wretch, this convicted criminal and notorious sinner that God's grace will indeed take care of him.
This weekend we celebrate a figure that exactly was an example of someone who didn’t embrace the cross but at the end of his life he was known to be “another Christ.” Many people can relate to St. Francis of Assisi. I found it interesting the other day when I presided at a funeral at a Protestant church and the minister that presided the service with me mentioned that if he were to choose a Catholic saint, it would be St. Francis of Assisi. St. Francis was born in Assisi, Italy and was the son of Pietro de Bernardone a well to do merchant. Francis with his father’s good fortune was a man that knew how to throw a party for his friends of Assisi. Francis was a man of the world but not much room for God in his life. He wanted to be known a great soldier but instead returned from Perugia after being captured as a prisoner. After this incident he fell very ill and after recovering, began his conversion experience. Like the good thief he experienced Christ at the cross, the San Damiano Cross which we are all familiar with every time we look at the processional cross. Christ spoke to him from this cross and told him, “Francis, rebuild my church.” That’s what he did, literally rebuild the church that was in physical ruin but he discovered in his faith journey that Christ wanted him to reform the church within. So Francis abandoned the material world and chose to live in strict poverty and he would never have imagined that in his life he would see thousands of men wanting to live this life of going from village to village and proclaiming the Gospel. Today, 800 years later, these men and women known as Franciscans are throughout the world ministering in parishes, hospitals, schools, retreat houses, soup kitchens, etc.. Just in my order alone, O.F.M.’s which is one of the 3 main branches of the Franciscan Order, number at about 15,000.
The good news of this morning’s/evening’s gospel is that the kingdom will survive no matter how the “tenants” behave, because the cornerstone of the kingdom is Christ. No matter what state that we might find our vineyard in, if it be a land that is fertile or as dry as the ground in a desert, as long as keep our focus on Christ as St. Francis did then we will be fruitful and enjoy being the tenants of his kingdom instead of fearful tenants in which the owner is out to get us. It’s hard to hear a message of judgment but it’s necessary because it challenges us to be faithful to the gospel message.
We don’t need to fear judgment because as we heard of God taking care of Isaiah in the first reading so will God care for us in the vineyard of our lives. In every Eucharist we partake in we are fed by his word and at the table. All is required of us is to let God tend to us and bring us to produce good fruit. All we need to do is be faithful and God will take care of the rest.
St Paul powerfully experienced this limitlessness of God's goodness and mercy. And he describes it in today's second reading the results of this experience for his own soul. He calls it "the peace of God that surpasses all understanding," a peace that keeps all anxiety at bay and "guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." All of us are thirsty for that kind of interior peace. The circumstances of life on earth tend always to be turbulent and stormy, in one way or another, but in our hearts we long for depth, peace, and stability. The experience of God's boundless mercy and goodness can give that to us, because we suddenly realize that we don't have to earn God's love, the way we have to earn other people's love - we already have it, in abundance!
And Jesus himself told us the secret to having that experience. He said: "Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." If we show mercy to others, our hearts mysteriously open up, and God's mercy, which he is always showering down upon us, can get in and clean things out, like a refreshing spring rain. But if we don't show mercy to others, it's like we put an umbrella over our own hearts and God's transforming mercy just glides right off. And mercy isn't about forgiving others because they deserve to be forgiven.
On the contrary, mercy is forgiving precisely when they don't deserve it, because that's how God forgives us. Who in our life has offended us and doesn't deserve to be forgiven? During this Eucharist, let's ask God to give us the grace to forgive them, to show mercy and goodness to them, to take the initiative in rebuilding the relationship, so that God's mercy and goodness will finally get free rein in us, filling us with his "peace that surpasses all understanding."