2nd Word From the Cross: ‘Today You Will Be With Me in Paradise’
Spiritual Communion and Adoration
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Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. And when they came to the place which is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on the right and one on the left… One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.” And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come in your kingdom.” And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Luke 23:32-33, 39-43)
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever.
The crucified him, one on the right and one on the left. The theme for our Seven Last Words meditation is: In your house I shall celebrate the Passover (Matthew 26:18).
The two criminals find Jesus in their midst. It is as if he has come to their house. Jesus has come to death row, but not as a visitor, but in fellowship with the condemned. There is no place where Jesus cannot enter, no house too poor, no situation too wretched, no plight too desperate, no circumstance too bleak. If your final home is a cross, as it was for those two on either side of Jesus, then it will be that house in which he comes to celebrate the Passover.
The Second Word follows immediately after the First Word in Luke’s Gospel, the 23rd chapter. We marvel at the words of the Good Thief, his act of faith, and the even more marvelous, mercy-filled response from Jesus, promising him that he would, that very day, be with Jesus in paradise. We want to say, along with the Good Thief: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom!”
There was another thief there, also close to the Cross, also close the Redeemer, also close to the throne of mercy. It is not sufficient to be close to the Lord to be identified with him. As the Venerable Fulton Sheen preached, while the Good Thief looked up toward the kingdom of heaven, the bad thief looked down to earth and demanded that Jesus come down off the Cross.
The pandemic has introduced new expressions into our vocabulary. “Social distancing” is one of them. We keep our distance, perhaps not unlike the distance between the three crosses on Calvary. But what do we see across that distance? Do we, like the bad thief, look down to earth, eager to return to where we came, how we lived before, to how things were before? Do we, like the Good Thief, look up toward heaven, eager for a new kingdom, eager not to return to how we were, but to be transformed by this encounter with Jesus? These days of forced retreat are a good time to ponder that question. How do we wish to live — for the world as it was, or for the kingdom that Jesus proclaims?
During these days of confinement, I propose we might look to the Good Thief as the patron saint of Spiritual Communion. We are relearning that venerable spiritual practice. We pray that the Lord Jesus may enter our souls spiritually. We might pray a spiritual communion prayer to remind us of sacramental communions that we have already made, or to complement our sacramental communions. In these days, we do so when sacramental communion is not possible.
There is no set formula for making a spiritual communion, but a formula we use in my parish is as follows:
Dearest Lord Jesus,
I believe that you are present in
the Most Blessed Sacrament.
I love you above all things,
and I desire to receive you into my soul.
Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally,
come spiritually into my heart.
I embrace you as if you were already there,
and unite myself wholly to you.
Never permit me to be separated from you.
The Good Thief was not at the Last Supper; he would not be at Emmaus. He would never receive the Lord Jesus in the Eucharist. But is not his request from the cross a brief version of that spiritual communion prayer: Lord, remember me?
And certainly Jesus’s response is a promise of communion: Today, you will be with me! That might serve as a good definition of communion, to be together with the Lord. When we make our spiritual communion prayers, we might ask that we might get the same response from Jesus: Today, you will be with me!
The other Eucharistic practice we are renewing during this pandemic is Adoration. In many places where it is not possible for the faithful to attend the Holy Mass, they visit their churches for Eucharistic Adoration. In places where even that is not possible, priests are bringing the Blessed Sacrament into the streets, having drive-in Adoration in parking lots, on the roofs of buildings, in open fields. In my own parish, on Sunday mornings I place the monstrance in a window of the rectory so that the people might come into the presence of the Lord.
Might we follow the Good Thief here as well? In Christian art, the two thieves are usually distinguished in their posture. The Good Thief is looking at Jesus, and Jesus is looking back at him. The other thief is looking elsewhere. Is that not what Adoration is at a simple level — looking at Jesus and Jesus looking back at us?
We are learning anew in these days that Adoration of the Eucharist is a necessary complement to Holy Communion. The Church needs both. In Holy Week 1980, 40 years ago, St. John Paul II wrote a letter on the Eucharist for Holy Thursday, encouraging the practice of Eucharistic Adoration.
In preaching about that letter to his priests at the Chrism Mass in Munich, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger points out that Eucharistic Adoration unites the ordained priesthood with the universal priesthood of the all the baptized:
If the distinction of these two callings over against each other is expressed in the Mass, in adoration we see how they are joined together: of this sacrament we all receive. All of us can only stand before him and adore.
Communion and adoration do not stand side by side, or even in opposition, but are indivisibly one. Communicating with Christ therefore demands that we gaze on him, allow him to gaze on us, listen to him, get to know him. Adoration is simply the personal aspect of Communion.
[Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, God Is Near Us: The Eucharist, The Heart of Life (Ignatius Press, 2003) p. 96-97. The chapter is Cardinal Ratzinger’s homily at the Chrism Mass in Munich, April 2, 1980.]
We are learning again in these days the lesson learned well by the Good Thief on Good Friday, that to look upon the Lord Jesus with faith and contrition, that in return to have the Crucified Christ return that gaze — in this is salvation. For this Jesus comes into your house.
Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
Today you will be with me in paradise
In your house I shall celebrate the Passover
We adore Thee, O Christ, and we praise Thee, because by Thy holy cross Thou hast redeemed the world.