This past week, on the 19th, was the 150th anniversary of the Lincoln delivering his address at Gettysburg. My father, who graduated from Gettysburg College (not long after Lincoln was there haha) had the good fortune of being out there for the anniversary, and I’m looking forward to hearing all about it this afternoon after Evensong. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is notoriously short, short enough for elementary school children to memorize. At the Lincoln Memorial, both the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address are etched into the walls on either side of that rather regal looking statue; the Second Inaugural takes up the entire wall in three panels, the Gettysburg Address just one solitary panel. The historian “Edward Everett, who famously spoke for two hours prior to Lincoln’s brief remarks, wrote a thank-you note to the president remarking on the eloquence of his words.” He wrote to President Lincoln, “Permit me also to express my great admiration of the thoughts expressed by you with such eloquent simplicity and appropriateness at the consecration of the cemetery. I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.”1
Lincoln got to the central idea quickly, perhaps as quick as anyone ever has. But let me offer you this quote: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Talk about getting to the central idea of an occasion. Perhaps Jesus didn’t feel too much need for preamble or explanation, giving the circumstances of the discourse.
The circumstances are well known, of course. Jesus was hung on a cross between two thieves, Gestas and Dismas, and those guys had famously different ideas of who Jesus was. Gestas, the “bad thief,” joined with the others who surrounded them, he “railed at Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But Dismas, the “good thief,” rebuked Gestas, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” Dismas seemed to know that Jesus was innocent, he seemed to know that Jesus was not like him and Gestas, that there was something to this King of the Jews sign that hung above Jesus’ head. he said, “Jesus,” Dismas said, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Well, it seems that Dismas was pretty good to getting to the central idea of an occasion as well. In some not-so-roundabout way, we are celebrating that central idea today, right now, on the Feast of Christ the King. The Feast of Christ the King wasn’t really codified until the early 20th century, but we can thank Pontius Pilate (of all people) for giving us a 1st century precursor. Pilate had a sign made up, the one you’re thinking of in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, that hung above Jesus, which said “Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews.”
We don’t know what Dismas knew of Jesus before that horrible day, but he saw that sign and somehow knew that Jesus was not like him and Gestas; he somehow knew that Jesus was not only innocent of the crimes He for which He was condemned, but that Jesus was also on the verge of something else altogether, that He was on the edge of Paradise, that the angels were already singing Him into His Kingdom.
There aren’t many of us who don’t feel pulled in many directions, who don’t feel like slaves to any number of kings; there aren’t many of us who can boil it down, who can pay attention to the right things all the time, who can focus on the right King all the time.
But like Lincoln at Gettysburg, like Dismas on his cross, with the help of celebrations like the feast of Christ the King, we can quickly find the central point of the occasion, we can praise the King of love, the King of forgiveness, the King of mercy, we can look to the King who was willing to die for us and, joining with Dismas, beg Him to remember us in His Kingdom.
1Connor Friedersdorf, The Gettysburg Address at 150 – And Lincoln’s Impromptu Words the Night Before, The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/11/the-gettysburg-address-at-150-and-lincolns-impromptu-words-the-night-before/281606/