Homily – Deacon Tony Bellitto
Sun., Nov. 24, 2019
Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe
34th or Last Sunday in Ordinary Time
First Reading – 2 Samuel 5:1-3
Second Reading – Colossians 1:12-20
Gospel – Luke 23:35-43
Theme – Jesus forgives the “Good Thief” on the Cross
Whenever we see a picture of Christ on Calvary, we always see three crosses next to each other, not just one. Did you ever wonder why Christ’s crucifixion is shown this way? Two other men are crucified for their crimes right next to Jesus. They share the stage, so to speak, in this most critically important drama being played out, in which the salvation of all of humanity hangs in the balance. What is the significance of this? Who are these other two men? There must be a reason that they are in this scene and are a part of God’s plan to redeem the world.
The man on one side of Jesus is considered the bad thief. He is unrepentant for his crimes. The man on the other side, who we call the good thief, is sorry for his crimes. He is genuinely remorseful and he knows he is receiving a just punishment for his wrongdoing. Yet he also recognizes that Jesus is an innocent victim who does not deserve to suffer this horrible sentence of execution. And further, he recognizes that Jesus is a king. He has faith that Jesus is the Messiah. He asks Jesus, “remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Despite Jesus enduring his own agony on the cross, he turned his attention to the thief who pleaded for mercy. And Jesus replies, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” So Jesus, the sinless one, will be bringing this sinner with him to Heaven, because of the remorse he has shown for his deeds, and for the faith he has expressed in Christ. He has offered his confession and he has received absolution from the Son of God, directly and personally.
When we partake in the sacrament of Confession, we receive that same gift of absolution of our sins from the Son of God, directly and personally, who speaks to us through the ministry of his priests.
So think about this. Confession is the last thing that Jesus does before he dies on the cross, and it’s also the first thing he offers the Apostles when he is resurrected, going to the upper room and telling them “whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven; whose sins you hold bound are held bound.” He gave that special authority to his first Apostles, which was then handed down to the Bishops and priests who they ordained in an unbroken succession throughout the centuries to today.
Christ offers forgiveness and mercy to the thief who turned to him in confession at the last moment of his life, and then as soon as he arises from the tomb he goes to the Apostles and empowers them to offer that same forgiveness and mercy to all people in the future, including us, who repent of their sins and come to faith in Him.
Christ is telling us, through his own words and actions here, that the sacrament of confession is very important, and we should not neglect it.
I sometimes think of this scene, of the good thief being forgiven and receiving the promise of Heaven, and compare it to a large safety net underneath a highwire tightrope walker. Why do I envision it that way? Maybe it’s just because I’m a little strange. But I think a visual can be helpful. So here’s what I mean.
The safety net is the ultimate security for a person trying to walk across a tightrope high above the ground. You might see this at a circus act or at one of those daredevil challenge events on TV. Many years ago the Wallenda family was world-famous for these tightrope walks, because they chose to eliminate the safety net completely, making their performances truly death-defying acts. Despite their many successful performances, it should be noted that several members of that family, including their patriarch Karl Wallenda, did eventually fall to their deaths, because they had no safety net below to catch them when the act went horribly wrong.
But Christ, through the ministry of his Church, offers us the safety net of the sacrament of confession. God’s forgiveness and mercy protects us and saves us – it catches us – when we fall so that our sin does not result in the death of our souls.
Sometimes, navigating our way in this world can seem like we’re walking a highwire tightrope – with all the problems that we face, it can be very difficult to just put one foot in front of another without falling. We’re not always so sure-footed. We make mistakes. We fall into sin.
We fall into despair. We can lose our balance.
We might look below us and see the chasm of open space underneath – the chasm of temptation, or illness, or doubt, or loneliness, or uncertainty about the future – and we can get so scared that we remain frozen in place, too afraid to even continue trying.
The key to walking across the highwire tightrope is to keep our balance, stay focussed, keep our eye on the goal ahead of us, and not be distracted by the forces that threaten to knock us down.
But, you may ask, why are we up there so high in the first place?
Christ calls us to climb up the ladder to the highest platform and venture out on a path that is not easy, but is rewarding. It is the narrow path of the tightrope, and it is a challenge. The saints have done it successfully, and we are all called to be saints.
Christ sets the bar high for us. He beckons us to live a life of heroic virtue, not just mediocrity. He places high demands on our behavior.
We are all called to holiness in a world that is profane. Holy means to be bold, distinct, separate, set apart, not absorbed into the surrounding culture – even being willing to face criticism and persecution because of our faith and because we take a stand to defend the truth of Church teaching, which has always been counter-cultural, and still is.
We are challenged to reach for the highest moral standards, not caving into the demands of the sinful atmosphere around us, because we are protected by the ultimate safety net of God’s mercy and forgiveness that is offered to us when we fail to meet those standards through our own human weakness.
The good news is that this highly demanding standard is matched by a very lenient penitential system that is so full of mercy and forgiveness and love that even the thief on the cross is welcomed into Heaven in the last breath of his earthly life.
So if we fall, or I should say, when we fall, because we all eventually will, we can fall without fear. We will be caught by the safety net below, which is huge and secure. God’s mercy is wide and dependable as it embraces us.
So we can bounce back up off that net, unharmed, and climb the ladder again, to keep trying to walk the narrow path of holiness, until our final day comes.
Today is the Solemnity of Christ the King as the Church marks the end of this liturgical year. Next Sunday starts the first week of Advent and the beginning of a new year in the Church’s calendar.
Jesus turns our concept of kingship on its head. This king reigns from the cross. He freely emptied himself, refusing to come down from the cross because his mission was to save us, not to conquer us. He offered himself for our sake to reconcile us to God. In Christ, power is made strong by humility and love. Leadership is displayed in service. Influence and authority are exercised through self-sacrifice and mercy.
And so, my brothers and sisters, Let us embrace Jesus and his kingdom today.
Let’s pray that his kingship may be more fully established in us and through us
in our world. May God bless you all.