These words of mercy, like the first words spoken by Jesus on the Cross, were words of forgiveness to sinners. Unlike the first, however, which were addressed to God, these were spoken to one of the two robbers who hung on their crosses beside our Lord. For we read:
"And with Him they crucify two others, thieves, one on each side; one on the right hand, and one on the left, and Jesus in the midst. . . . And the soldiers mocked Him, coming to Him and offering Him vinegar, and saying: If Thou be the King of the Jews, save Thyself. And the selfsame thing the thieves also that were crucified with Him reproached Him with; and they reviled Him. And one of these robbers who were hanged, blasphemed Him, saying: If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us. But the other, answering, rebuked him, saying: Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation. And we, indeed, justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds; but this Man hath done no evil... And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when Thou shall come into Thy Kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shall be with me in Paradise."Now, brethren, it seems to me most useful to recall to mind on Good Friday the fact, that there were two sinners who were crucified beside our Lord, who saw His sufferings, who made very earnest reflections on His Passion, but with such widely different results that one ended in heaven and the other in hell. This view of the matter is, surely, one that comes home to us. For we are sinners: we are actually here gathered together and determined, even with some fatigue of body, and at, it may be, not a little inconvenience, to watch Jesus on His Cross, to listen to His words; and surely we desire that this our watch beside our Crucified Saviour should end in penitence and forgiveness with the good thief, and not in impenitence and reprobation with his unhappy comrade. Nor can we deceive ourselves, looking at these two crucified criminals, with the thought that in merely being here today, in giving up pleasures and business, to attend this lengthened service, and to reflect upon the sufferings of our Lord, we have thereby done enough, and are secure of the grace and blessing of this day of grace.
No! For the poor wretch whose unhappy soul went down this Good Friday evening, even at the foot of the Cross of Jesus on Calvary, down to its everlasting torture in hell, this poor reprobate had kept the three hours' Agony; had shared, in terrible reality, the sufferings of Jesus crucified; had heard His words, and seen His forgiveness, and watched His death. Alas!, shall we ever know as much of the Cross as that bad thief? Shall we ever suffer as he suffered, or in such close companionship with Jesus? And he was lost, and before the night had fallen on Calvary, and while his stiffened and distorted corpse still hung, limbs-broken, awaiting its robber's grave, his soul was buried in hell. And so it may come to pass-oh, it is not impossible I-that some poor sinner who has come so far on the way to repentance and forgiveness, who has come to hear these sermons and to reflect upon these saving truths, may go no further: may leave this church unchanged, and go forth, as he came in, reprobate, with one more grace neglected, one more Good Friday lost, his heart more hardened, more resolved than ever not to seek forgiveness at the feet of the priest of God-further than ever from paradise, nearer than ever to hell.
Or if this be an extreme case, as indeed I hope it is, there may be those who may lose the special strength and light that God would give them today; who also may go out as they came in, unchanged by the contemplation of their Crucified Lord; if no worse, at least no better for Good Friday. To them, too, it were well to point the lesson of these two strangely contrasted spectators of the scene on Calvary; of these fellows in crime, fellows in suffering, fellows in the company of Jesus Crucified, fellow-hearers of His words on the Cross, fellow-witnesses of His death; but widely parted as heaven and hell in the fruit they drew from all. For not only the reprobate sinner, but even the lukewarm Catholic, may draw bitter not sweet waters out of the Saviour's fountains: it does not take an evil-minded person, but only a careless one, to lose a very great and precious grace. Let us then, all of us, sinners as we all are, and what ever be our life's history or our guilt in the eyes of God today, let us all see wherein lay the difference of two contemplations of the Passion which had such strangely different results, in order that we may share the good thief’s grace, and avoid the other's reprobation.
And first remark that, at the beginning, both thieves joined in reproaching and reviling our Lord. No wonder, indeed, that they should see and feel the full force of the scornful taunt -"Himself He cannot save." "He trusted in God, let Him now deliver Him, if He will have Him; for He said: I am the Son of God." Yes, it was a bitter disappointment for them. For they might well have expected that, if He had saved Himself, and had, as He was challenged to do, come down from the Cross, He would also have saved them from their torture, and have brought them too from their crosses. In the first shock of that sad breakdown of his last hope, even the good thief gave way, and joined in the reproaches, maddened, poor fellow, by the pain of his crucifixion. But then his moment of grace came: his eyes were opened: he saw his Lord and his God in the poor innocent Sufferer before him; his reproaches ceased, words of pity came, confession of his own sin, one heartfelt prayer, and grace had done its work.
Not so his wretched comrade. He too, no doubt, recognized the innocence of Jesus: but what was that to him? All he knew was that innocence could not save Him from the torture of the Cross. And so looking on the gentle Sufferer he cursed Him for His weakness. "He blasphemed Him, saying: If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us." It was no prayer for salvation-that might have been answered: it was a mere infidel's jibe. If Thou be Christ - a likely story! And so the unbeliever's prayer - the Holy Ghost has called it a blasphemy - is the last sin of this sad life, and he dies rejecting salvation on the very day of salvation, and passes from the fiery torments of the cross into the fire of hell. O Saviour, grant us faith in Thee as we now gaze upon Thee Crucified; trust in Thee to save even the most hardened sinner among us-for we know Thou art Christ, and can save us, if only we will be saved.
The other thief knew this, and acted on his knowledge. He willed to be saved, and he was saved. Let us see how; for surely it is just what we should strive to see. When the moment came, and his eyes were opened, and he recognized in Jesus his Saviour, he at once spoke, and his words are full of instruction, and show the history of his conversion. For it has a history, though it was so rapid, and it is the history of every true change of heart. First came that interior faith which made him separate himself from the scoffers, and rebuke his fellow-robber for his unbelief. Then, springing from that faith came fear of God. "And dost not thou fear God," he asks, "seeing that thou art under the same condemnation?" Then came the humble confession of his sinfulness, and his willing acceptance of his awful punishment. "And we, indeed, are condemned justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds."
Surely, an honest confession for one nailed to a cross; a generous acknowledgment of heavy guilt that could merit such heavy expiation! Thirdly, he expresses compassion for his innocent Saviour: "But this man hath done no evil." Ah, how those words must have gone to the Heart of the Divine Sufferer: how they must have moved the sorrowing Mother that heard them-the compassion of that agonizing thief upon his cross! And now the time has come, and the last earnest prayer of a generous soul, full of faith, is heard above the taunts and mockery of the crowd: "And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when Thou shall come into Thy Kingdom." He asks for a memento, and, God be praised, he hears the gentle voice - the voice of absolution from the past, of hope beyond his wildest expectation for the future, the sentence, even before his death, of his merciful Judge "Amen I say to thee, this day thou shall be with me in Paradise." This day - this Good Friday before nightfall: and in Paradise, with his Saviour! Ah, how lightly he hangs upon his cross now: how his poor heart goes out to the Sacred Heart of his Jesus! How lovingly and compassionately he watches from his cross the pain and humiliation of the Innocent One!
With what awe, yet with what unutterable hope he hears His death cry, and sees His sacred Head sink forward as He gives up the ghost! He himself still lingers on; the gathering film of death does not prevent his eyes from resting on the sacred Body of his Saviour. And so he hangs, with the great Crucifix beside him, until the soldiers come and put an end to his sufferings, and dispatch him to his reward with Jesus in Paradise. Happy soul! Happy penitent! Happy road that led so quickly, and, even amid much bodily torture, so easily, from faith to fear, from fear to contrite confession, from confession to compassion, from compassion to one earnest prayer, and through that prayer to Paradise! Where is the sinner who may not travel that road? Sweet Saviour, grant that there be no such impenitent sinner here!
Dearly beloved, we have now before us a bright example for our reflections on the Passion this Good Friday. We have the terrible example of the miserable soul that saw indeed the Cross and the Saviour on it, but that saw with a hardened and unmoved heart, and rejected the salvation that was offered him. And we have the consoling and -encouraging example of the happy soul whom Good Friday morning found a sinner, but Good Friday evening a saint. He saw his God upon a Cross, and made his act of faith in Him. He recognized the terrors of His judgments, and made his act of fear of Him. He saw his own sinful life, and sorrowed for it and confessed it. He watched the patient agony of the innocent Jesus, and compassionated Him. And finally he poured out his whole heart in that one trustful prayer-" Lord, remember me!" And he saved his soul. There is not one here who may not do the same. . Oh, if there be one soul that is now wavering-that will and will not be saved - that dreads the very grace and mercy of this Good Day - I ask that soul just to wait and watch by the Cross now; to make an act of faith, an act of fear: to review the sinful past in sorrow of heart: to look with compassion at that Saviour on the Cross, and to send up to Him, into His loving Heart, the one earnest cry, "Lord, remember me!"
Oh, do this, weak waverer, and you will find strength to make a new thing of your poor life; do this, and your confession will come easy to you; and as the torments of the Cross vanished for that penitent thief, so will the difficulties you dread in your conversion disappear, and what seemed to you to be chains that no power could break will burst like threads before the strong grace of God.
O brethren, pray that this day all poor sinners, if there be any here, if there be any whom you love, who are bound by the ropes of their life-long sin, that all may now burst their bonds asunder; that if there be any who fear the confession of their sins - who cannot bring themselves to say that past confessions and past communions have been bad - that they may in this day of Grace find grace honestly to do so; that as happy penitents they may hear in the absolution of the priest the echo of this word of mercy and forgiveness on the Cross: "Amen I say to thee, this day thou shall be with me in Paradise." Jesus and Mary help them!
Adapted from...Sermons 1877-1887
by Fr Arthur Ryan (© 1890)
President of St. Patrick's College
St. Patrick's College, in 1992, ceased to be a Seminary.