Mercy In A Moment

“Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” / Reconciliation

I was sitting in “my family’s pew” at a Sunday Mass, and our Irish parish priest was preaching on a story about the Devil and three of his demons. The Devil asks his subordinates what is the surest way to doom a soul. The first two demons reply with answers like “atheism” and “pleasure.” But when the third demon steps up, confidently he says: “I would convince him that he has plenty of time.” The Devil replies: “Well done.”

Phew! How often is this my mistake? I assume that there will be a tomorrow, that I can ask forgiveness for that later, that I have plenty of time.

“I tell you, this day you will be with Me in paradise.”

It’s a familiar line of comfort from the Scriptures. Jesus is Crucified between two robbers on either side of him. In His public humiliation, the onlookers mock Him shamelessly. But they’re not alone. Even those condemned to a similar fate cannot resist shaming the Savior. “…the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Mt 27:44; see also Mk 15:32b).

We know from the Gospels that Jesus was crucified around noon and hung on the Cross for about three hours. That he even lived that long after all that he endured is remarkable! But to endure such suffering and yet not cry out against his executioners nor give an inch to any kind of self-pity? Serious self-giving love embodied here.

The conversion of Dismas, the name of “the good thief” according to (small “t” tradition), should give us some sense of just how deeply moving was the silent suffering of Jesus. After all, we read in Matthew and Mark that both robbers reviled and mocked Jesus. But upon turning to Luke, we read:

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at [Jesus] 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 for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus remember me when you come in your kingly power.’ And [Jesus] said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23:39-43).

What should we make of Dismas’ change of heart? What inspired his conversion in a span of three hours? Could it be he saw something of Jesus’ divinity in witnessing Christ’s suffering? Could it be that recognition, stirred Dismas to examine himself and recognize his need for repentance?

Whatever it is that inspires Dismas’ change of heart, notice that he does not ask for reward. He does not ask to be brought into Heaven, only that Jesus would remember him.

Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone who had been shouting insults and curses at me a couple hours ago were now asking me to remember them kindly, it would take a lot of struggle and determination to muster that kind of compassion.

Would I say: “Will you be my escort into the kingly power that you speak of?” Doubtful.

Yet this is exactly Jesus’ response: “Today you will be with me in paradise!”

Jesus sees in Dismas a purity of heart where Dismas realizes his own unworthiness and the justice of the punishment he is receiving. Yet he repents. He reveals a sorrow for his faults when he rebukes the other robber, his former partner in revile, and then turns to Jesus to ask for mercy.

Take a look at Dismas’ moment in Luke’s Gospel next to the Act of Contrition:

My God, I am heartily sorry for having offended You, And I detest all of my sins because of your just punishments.  But most of all because they offend you, my God, who are all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly intend, with your help, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin. [Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In His name, my God, have mercy. Amen.]

‘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 for our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’

And he said, ‘Jesus remember me when you come in your kingly power.

Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned…

Now, if you’re from a Catholic background, you can probably guess where this is going: “Go to Confession!”

And you’d be right. Confession (also called Penance or Reconciliation) is probably the sacrament that most of us feel most apprehensive about because it requires us to do something most of us detest – admitting that we are wrong, and not just wrong in our actions but wrong in who and how we are when we sin.

I think Dismas’ request that Jesus “remember” him comes to bear in a special way here. After all, if we look at the word itself, we can hyphenate it as “re – member” which equates to “put back together.” It could be seen as a request that Jesus set us right again, to re-order us back into the image and likeness of himself that we are made to be. The sacrament of Reconciliation is where we respond to God’s call in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, let us set things right, says the Lord: Though your sins be like scarlet, they may become white as snow; Though they be red like crimson, they may become white as wool.”

The question is often raised in this conversation: “God already knows my sins, so why do I need to confess them to a priest? Can’t I just be sorry for my sins and call it a day?”

But here’s the thing: human beings are body-spirit composites. Therefore, the truest and most real things we do involve both essential parts of our being: body and soul. I may have sorrow for my sins in my heart, but giving expression to that through the confession of my sins involves my whole self in the act of repentance. Examining my conscience with my power of memory, confessing my sins with my mouth, bowing my head in prayer, speaking the Act of Contrition, hearing the words of Absolution, making the sign of the Cross, carrying out my penance…every bit of Reconciliation involves my body in the process of cleansing my soul. It is through this full involvement of my person that the reconciliation I need with God is made real: is REAL-ized. (Check out this video from Bishop (then Father) Robert Barron for more on this:

Dismas involves his whole person in the act of reconciliation. He doesn’t just feel sorry for his sin. Jesus would have known that Dismas had sorrow for his sin. But it is precisely through his “body-soul” admission of his own guilt and his desire to be reconciled with God that Dismas goes from sinner to saint.

“The Last Hour Abounds with Mercy”

The immediacy of Jesus’ extension of mercy in this moment reminds me of a revelation to St. Faustina Kowalska, as recorded in her diary “Divine Mercy in My Soul” in entry #1507.

All grace flows from mercy, and the last hour abounds with mercy for us. Let no one doubt concerning the goodness of God; even if a person’s sins were as dark as night, God’s mercy is stronger than our misery. One thing alone is necessary: that the sinner set ajar the door of his heart, be it ever so little, to let in a ray of God’s merciful grace, and then God will do the rest.

In this last hour of Jesus’ (and Dismas’) life, mercy abounds. God’s mercy is stronger than Dismas’ misery. We may truly believe, I think, that the witness of Jesus’ merciful love extended toward all who were present at his execution (whether friend, enemy, or stranger) was transformative for Dismas. We can see the merciful grace of God at work in Dismas. Dismas must have, as St. Faustina said, set ajar the door of his heart even just a little to faith (“just maybe this man is who he says he is”), and in that briefest moment of openness, God did the rest.

Dismas’ whole story hinges on a moment of repentance: in an instant, he goes from condemned robber to escort of the King of Kings upon his glorious re-entry into the Heavenly Kingdom. The same can be true for us today if only we “repent and believe in the Gospel.”

So friends, let us see in this word of Christ, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” a call to remember the mercy of God. His mercy is constantly extended to us at every moment of our lives and most especially at the hour of our death. But let us resist the temptation to presume upon God’s mercy and think, as the Enemy wishes us to, that we have plenty of time. Seize the moment! “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand! You know neither the day nor the hour!” Meet Jesus Crucified in the sacrament of Reconciliation. Recognize the power of his great love for you, poured out on the Cross; confess your sins and ask for forgiveness; and whether it is fear of hell or fear of God that drives you to the Confessional, know that even the smallest desire to be transformed is doorway enough for God’s grace to go to work in re-membering you.

About the Author

Rachel Meixner is the Director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at the Cathedral of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus in Knoxville, TN.  She obtained her Master of Arts in Theology from the University of Notre Dame and is also an alumni of Franciscan University of Steubenville.

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