Two Thieves, Four Nuns, Seven Monks, and Us: Good Friday in This Place and Time

2017 April 29

17 April 2017

Two Thieves, Four Nuns, Seven Monks, and Us:

Good Friday in This Place and Time

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Murphy Mason

 Worldwide, the central icon of the Christianity is the cross. Yet there is considerable variability in its form – the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches venerate the Crucifix, the cross with the body of Jesus fixed to it, while most Protestants use an empty cross that suggests resurrection. Even empty crosses vary widely, though, from the Patriarchal cross with its 3 bars, to the Coptic cross with its looped top, to the Celtic cross with a radiant circle at the center. What these manifold forms signal to me is the universal import of the cross; in the most diverse of global Christian traditions, people are still required to make some sense of its meaning.

Inevitably, that leads Christians to a reflection on the horrendous events of Good Friday, which brings us to precisely where we are today, all together now, hushed in this vaunted church sanctuary, punctuated with its empty Latin crosses, commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth by Romans millennia ago, and simultaneously preparing ourselves for the holy rite of communion. It’s an unusual juxtaposition, surely, but the First Unitarian Society in Brooklyn is an unusual place.

Those Universalists and Unitarians who still celebrate an annual or occasional communion tend to be rather shy about the cross. Theirs is often a simple wooden one, humbly standing on a pedestal, and it’s likely kept in the same closet as the communion silver with which it’s been ritually paired. When the silver has been polished, maybe by church deacons such as ours, the communion table gets set and its centerpiece becomes that simple cross, freestanding and solitary.

Of course, that entire tableau is intended to symbolize our participation in worldwide communion and we do just that, we participate. It’s a profound and beautiful religious practice; I have deep fondness for it myself. But lately, a single solitary cross has begun to seem conspicuous to me. Because Jesus of Nazareth was not crucified alone – all Gospel accounts agree on that. At minimum, he was crucified with two men, though it may have actually been with dozens or even scores more. In Luke’s Gospel account, we are told only that Jesus is crucified between two criminals.

Christian lore has dubbed these two as the one “good” or “happy thief” and the other thief, who is neither. These are peculiar labels, because it’s impossible to imagine how anyone might bear up well, let alone happily, under the public torment of state-sponsored terrorism and mass execution that we now call crucifixion.

According to Luke, the unhappy criminal joins Roman soldiers and community leaders in heckling Jesus, taunting that he should be his own savior, if he indeed has any saving power at all. Jesus does not respond to the criminal, but the good thief does. “Do you not fear God,” he asks him, “for you are under the same sentence of condemnation?” Jesus has already prayed that God, his heavenly Father, forgive the people clamoring at his crucifixion, those relishing the sadistic spectacle of a cruel death. Jesus declares, “They know not what they do”.

Yet the good thief seems to understand precisely what people are doing and to want – hanging from a cross himself – to interrupt the mercilessness of it all. He says: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” As best I understand it, the kingdom of God that Jesus both lived and died for is a realm of remembrance. His earthly ministries always involved him re-membering those whom his society would literally and figuratively dis-member: the blind and the lame, the adulterous and prostituted, the Samaritan and the Canaanite alike.

Jesus remembers “the least of these”, the most despised, and in do so challenged the prevailing thought of his time, a firmly held belief that those same people who suffered the most were assuredly sinful and deserved to be set apart and isolated. The good thief challenges this thinking, too, when he tells the unhappy criminal, “This man has done nothing wrong”. 

In his gospel, Luke calls the men criminals, though we know nothing of the charges brought against them. Jesus is condemned as an insurrectionist, a threat to the established order. Never mind that the order was a brutal one, that Judea was an occupied territory at the outer reaches of a ruthless empire, living under martial law and fearing for its very survival. Almost every offense was punishable by death at the hands of the Roman Legion, and those criminals on either side of Jesus might have been murderers, but they might just as easily have been petty thieves. We will never know…

But today we will remember those criminals alongside Jesus. We will commemorate Good Friday with an open acknowledgment that the scope of suffering in our world, in this present day, is utterly staggering, much as it has ever been, and that so much of the suffering is senseless. The Rev. Carl Scovel, a Unitarian Universalist minister who occupied the pulpit at King’s Chapel Boston for decades, lamented that “the real crucifixion… that mystery of self-immolating compassion – must be relived again and again in each and every generation… [in] the big martyrs… and the small fry/little Christs.” Those so-called “small fry/little Christs” have been top of mind for me lately, because I cannot imagine us ever having a complete count of them, and I grieve that they will not be remembered generation after generation.

In his tally of “the small fry/little Christs” the Rev. Scovel includes four American women, three of them Catholic nuns, all doing relief work in El Salvador, who in 1980 were slaughtered together by a Salvadoran death squad. One of its victims, a Maryknoll lay missioner named Jean Donovan, considered leaving the country when the violence there became unchecked, but decided against it.  The situation terrified her, and she would have left, she explained in a surviving letter, “except for the… poor, bruised victims of this insanity. Who would care for them? Whose heart could be so staunch as to favor the reasonable thing in a sea of their tears and loneliness? Not mine…”

Such a heart as Jean Donovan’s is rare, but ones as generous and faithful as hers do continue beating in this world – about that I have no doubt. But if something were to suddenly stop their beating, would we ever know? Probably not. This only magnifies the loss of humanity. Nowadays, in the better-known political resistance movements active in America – Black Lives Matter, for instance, or the Women’s March – there is an unyielding insistence on shared leadership. It’s a conscious rejection of the so-called “big martyr” model, the where a messianic figure, a hero of the people, becomes a spokesperson and almost immediately thereafter, a target.

Certainly key figures such as Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. bent history, much as Jesus Christ did during the first century of our common era. All of them improved and dignified the lives of masses of downtrodden people. Yet each emerged as leader of a large scale, spiritually alive, anti-oppression movement – a movement whose rank and file consisted of the committed and self-sacrificing “small fry/little Christs” we now work so hard to recall.

After Jesus was crucified between those two thieves, all of his disciples, those who had chosen to follow him in his itinerant healing ministries, were martyred for their beliefs, one by one. Even that great evangelist St. Paul was probably beheaded by Romans centuries later. The Christian traditions have a complicated and fraught, sometimes distorted and disfiguring, relationship to martyrdom, but they still sound a clarion call to courageous living. “Death is not the ultimate evil,” Dr. King preached; “the ultimate evil is to be outside God’s love.” Those who have grasped the enormous scope of God’s love have often been the most fearless in risking their lives.

Among “the small fry/little Christs”, the Rev. Scovel also includes seven Trappist monks who refused to abandon their abbey in Algeria in the 1990s. The seven were subsequently kidnapped and killed. Anticipating himself that he would become a victim of the Islamic terrorism that had taken his adoptive country hostage, one of the monks wrote a letter in which forgave his future murderer. It also extended this caveat to posterity: “Associate my death with so many violent ones which are forgotten through indifference and anonymity. My life has no more value than theirs, nor any less,” the monk concluded.

Even facing his anticipated murder, this monk forged an unbreakable bond of human fellowship, writing: “you, my last-minute friend…will not have known what you were doing. Yes, I want to this Thank-you and Adieu to be for you, too, because in God’s face, I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it please God, the Father of us both. Amen and Insh’allah.” Insha’allah, he wrote – God willing, and indeed that that does seem to be will of the God revealed by Jesus on the cross.

According to Luke, the promise Jesus makes to the “good thief” is: “Truly, I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” Here Jesus affirms that theirs is indeed a shared destiny. Jesus says nothing to the unhappy criminal, not because the man is left outside of the scope of possible reconciliation, but because he is hard-hearted and lacks the ears to hear. This evening, though, we are all asked to open our hearts and our ears and listen, truly listen.

The centrality of the cross in the Christian tradition is a stark challenge to confront the reality of people’s suffering and ultimately a mandate for us confront it together. As humans, each of us has a marked capacity for distancing ourselves from suffering, rationalizing it, justifying it, defending against it, or ignoring it altogether. It scares us. We’re afraid, perhaps, of potential contagion. We doubt the power of solidarity in the face of it.

Outside of this church, well outside of this city, usually outdoors in distant rural areas, the cross often stands in a cluster of three, the tall one in the center standing for Jesus, the two flanking him representing the thieves. It’s historically accurate and socially contextualized, and I find this configuration especially poignant lately, during this time of remarkable polarization across our country.

That cluster of three crosses reminds me that if we are not fated to become so-called “big martyrs”, we are at least given the choice of becoming one sort of “small fry” or the other. We can turn to a crucified Christ, the one nearest us on this mortal plane, and with all our heart and with all our mind and with all our soul try to interrupt cruelty, moment by moment, with sincerest kindness.

Having been your Community Minister for nearly a year now, I know how just responsive Unitarian Universalists in Brooklyn and beyond have been to present suffering – whether it’s been by protesting racist brutality in New York, marching on Washington to affirm women’s rights, or rallying at JFK International Airport in response to an unjust immigration ban. Facing a powerful backlash against globalization, together we are asked to witness to a concern for suffering anywhere on earth, regardless of whether it occurs in Latin America, Northern Africa, Ferguson, MO, or the war-torn Middle East of today. We recognize ourselves as rightful participants in this worldwide communion of a hurting humanity. We are called to be faithful in its midst. That is no small task, I know, but a merciful and compassionate God requires it of us.

The next time you see any sort of cross, remember this particular moral requirement. If the cross you see a crucifix, take a closer look at the posture of Jesus. Customarily, his head is titled toward the right, which some have suggested is his gesturing to the right hand, that hand of blessing, meaning that in his death, as well as in his life, he blessed us. Others in Christendom maintain that his head is inclined in the direction of the good thief, the one who showed kindness, his final co-conspirator in the greatest good.

May all of us here be thick as happy thieves, bound and determined to live our own lives in such a way that they each prove worth dying for in the end. Let us strive to live in fully humane fellowship, trusting that we are always accompanied by that great communion of saints in the family of all souls, knowing that we are never alone in our pain or sorrow, not at any time, but most especially, not today. Not today.

Amen and blessed be!


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