1925 was quite a year. Mount Rushmore was dedicated and the Great Sphinx of Giza was unearthed; the first issue of The New Yorker was released and F. Scott Fitzgerald published The Great Gatsby. In more ominous 1925 news, on January 3rd Benito Mussolini announced that he had taken dictatorial powers over Italy, and more ominously yet, Adolph Hitler published Mein Kampf. Pope Pius XI recognized the rise in nationalism and secularism, and decided to remind the world of who was really in charge. And here we are, 85 years later, celebrating Pius’ action: the Solemnity of Christ the King.
I’ve been reading former president George Bush’s book, Decision Points, and I came across an interesting couple of pages on presidential pardons. President Bush was uncomfortable with pardoning people, and he pointed out that the power to pardon, while it was certainly within the presidents purview, was originally a power only exercised by kings. Kings have absolute power in such matters, they can restore the innocence of a convicted person, as opposed to a jury saying that someone is just ‘not guilty’. We witnessed just such an order in the Gospel we just heard from St. Luke.
“Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” That’s quite a request coming from man who was, by his own admission, rightfully hanging on a cross. St. Luke doesn’t record that man’s name, he is known by many as the “good thief” because of his repentance. Western Holy Tradition says his name was Dismas; the Arabians say Titus, the Russians Rach, one old codex calls him Zoatham. Whatever his name may have been, whatever his crime may have been, he was given to a peculiar vision of the Man crucified next to him.
“On the cross, Jesus is stripped of all the trappings of kingly power, except one. One commentary puts it this way: “What really makes a king? You can strip away all the pomp and circumstance, all the show, all the public demonstrations of power, all the wealth, perhaps even the last shred of human dignity. On the cross, what makes the king has nothing to do with ermine, gold, and courtly retinues. On the cross, the only way to recognize this crucified king is in his power to pardon . . . . Follow Jesus to the cross and watch every external sign of his kingship stripped away – save one: his power to pardon the ungodly. Against all odds and despite all the evidence, Luke’s second thief saw the king on his crude throne.”1
Dismas saw that King on the crude throne of the Cross, and begged His pardon. “Jesus,” he called the King, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him saying “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Even on His best days, Jesus never spoke of Paradise; instead He waited for His worst, yet most triumphant day, to first utter that word. That word Paradise refers to three things in the Bible, all in the Old Testament: “the original “Paradise” of the prelapsarian (pre- Fall of Man) Garden of Eden, the intermediate “Paradise” which was a kind of pleasant waiting area for the redeemed prior to the final resurrection of the dead (in contradistinction to Hades/Sheol, which was a rather dank and unpleasant holding cell for the dead), and the ultimate or final “Paradise” that would be the fullness of “heaven” or of God’s new kingdom.”2
Jesus was almost certainly speaking of the second instance of Paradise, what came to be known as Purgatory. The early Church certainly thought this, as very early on we find writings and an awful lot of art depicting Christ preaching the Gospel to the souls in Purgatory.
“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom,’ Dismas begged of Jesus. Dismas got the answer he was looking for, but we don’t have a record if he said thanks or if he just hung there. But we do know this: if he did just hang there, he hung there redeemed, innocent, remembered. Dismas was not just recalled in the mind of Christ, but re-membered, put back together in the image of Christ; Dismas hung there no longer waiting for death, but for life, life in Paradise.
Dismas looked over at that beaten, mocked, half-dead Man on the cross next to him and against all odds and despite all the evidence, he saw the King of Glory on His crude throne. “Remember me!” was all that Dismas asked of the King. Remember me.
1Sermon, Christ the King, Fr. Sammy Wood.