We have finally made it to Palm Sunday and Holy Week, the final week of Lent. Hopefully, you have all done well this Lent and allowed the Lord to transform you through the sacrifices you’ve offered to Him. Did you notice the times throughout the last several weeks in which you struggled, or even fully dropped the ball on your Lenten promises? More importantly, like several characters in the Passion narrative, did you pick yourself up from your stumbles and falls and try again? Like the apostles, perhaps you fell asleep for a moment, but managed to grab a spiritual cup of coffee and woke back up. Perhaps you tried very hard to keep on track and do the right thing in a particular moment, like Pontius Pilate, but found yourself surrounded by opposition, making it very hard to follow through with your best intentions. Regardless of how your Lent has gone thus far, it is not over yet, and you can still make this Holy Week your best one ever.
Re-commit to your Lenten promises now and ask God to help you finish strong as you persevere with Christ in His final moments of life.
This week, we conclude our reflection series by looking at the Passion from the perspective of three final characters – the centurion and the two criminals crucified on Jesus’ right and left. Let’s begin with the centurion. The centurion is mentioned in three of the gospels. He was a Roman soldier who was present at Jesus’ crucifixion and was the first to admit out loud that a terrible mistake had been made saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Mat 27:54, Mark 15:39) and, “Certainly this man was innocent!” (Luke 23:47). Let’s look at the story through the centurion’s eyes beginning with today, Palm Sunday. Because he was a Roman soldier stationed in Jerusalem at the time, we can assume he was active in the city, doing his work, and a witness to the events of the day. This pagan, Roman man would have seen Jesus coming through the gates of the city on a donkey being lauded and praised by the crowds. Obviously, we can not know what his thoughts were on the matter, but certainly, he must have had some curiosity about who this man was and the effect he had on all of the people gathered there. He had likely never seen anything like this before – a poor, nomadic man on the back of a lowly beast, arriving in a large city to great fanfare. Since we do not know for certain what he thought about this spectacle, we will have to close our eyes and imagine ourselves as the pagan centurion watching the events unfold. What would you think? Would you elbow your fellow soldiers and joke about the absurdity of it all, or would you recognize that something unusual or even other-worldly was taking place?
Now, following Palm Sunday, imagine the centurion watching the events of Holy Week unfold. This soldier would have watched this man, who was just revered a few days before, find Himself at the center of a horrific and unjust trial, followed by torture and a death sentence. Surely the centurion would have been confused, especially because he was not a Jew and ignorant of the details of the implied threat Jesus placed upon the Jewish leadership. For all he knew, this was an innocent and non-threatening man who suddenly became public enemy number one. It is likely that most of us have seen a similar situation where someone that was once respected suddenly became the victim of persecution or a witch hunt. When we see this, we wonder how quickly human beings can turn under the right circumstances. Despite knowing he was present, we don’t know too much about what the centurion thought as he observed these events, remaining silent until, when at the very end, he was brave enough to declare that Jesus was, in fact, wrongly killed. I’m particularly impressed by the centurion’s conviction to speak the truth in the midst of chaos, not allowing the masses to influence his own critical thinking about the situation. Do we have the strength to be the only one to say something when we recognize a wrong has been committed or do we stay silent?
When we read chapter 10 in the Acts of the Apostles, we see a Roman soldier named Cornelius convert to Christianity, along with his entire family. The Catholic Church has determined that Cornelius was, in fact, the same centurion who was present at the crucifixion and that what he witnessed and declared on that day had a profound effect on him. Since Cornelius was a pagan Roman and not a Jew, he became the very first Gentile to convert to Christianity. Peter recognized this miracle: “And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles. ‘Can anyone withhold water for baptizing these people, who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’” (Acts 10:45-46). Cornelius was named a saint by the Catholic Church, representing that God came to save ALL of mankind and not just one particular group of people. We can thank St. Cornelius for his open mind and heart, along with his conviction and bravery in response to the gift Jesus had to offer him and the rest of us. May we all continue to imitate him through continual conversion in ourselves.
Now we will look at the two criminals who were crucified on either side of Jesus. These two men appear in every gospel account. Crucifixion was a common punishment in the Roman empire at the time and served as a public chastisement for all to see in order to deter criminal activities. Even though Jesus received an extraordinary amount of torcher prior to his crucifixion, to which the others had not been subjected, it still wasn’t unusual that He was executed alongside others who were receiving that punishment. When you read the four accounts, at first glance, they may seem confusing. Matthew, Mark, and John show both men being crucified alongside Jesus without much difference in their accounts. In fact, these accounts depict the thieves being crucified as reviling and challenging Jesus in the midst of their crucifixions. However, the Church calls the man on Jesus’ right the “good thief.” So what changed? Luke’s account of the events provides us with some beautiful insight into the transformation this individual made as he hung on the cross. After the crucifixion of all three men, but before their death, Jesus prays the prayer we all ought to have the strength to pray in times of trial, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The other gospels do not mention this prayerful plea, and Luke makes it the prayer that directly precedes the good thief’s request – “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” to which Jesus replies, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:42-43). This exchange between Jesus and the thief shows us the profound effect Jesus’ prayer had on the thief, which ultimately facilitated his death bed conversion. After all, who asks for forgiveness for one’s killers while literally hanging in agony from a cross? This was obviously a very different type of a man. The good thief willingly responds to what Jesus has to offer, even at the last second, and, as a result, the Catholic Church has declared him St. Dismas.
The man who was crucified on Jesus’ left was not moved at all, even though he witnessed all of the same things St. Dismas did. In his pride, he mocked Jesus with the others in the crowd and thus, did not receive the same promise of heaven. As unsavory as it may be, put yourself in the place of this thief, rejecting God’s mercy and sinking yourself in your own pride and self-importance. Imagine having Jesus that close to you and hearing His words, yet being closed off to what He has to offer you. Think of your loved ones who might be experiencing this now and what darkness they must be in to be so hard hearted. Have compassion and pity for them, for they do not understand what is at stake. Imitate Jesus in saying, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
The conversion of the good thief reminds me of the parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard (see Ma 20:1-16). In short, the vineyard owner recruits laborers throughout the day to tend to his work. However, at the end of the day, regardless of what time they started work, he paid each of the workers the same wages. Those who came to work earlier complained about earning the same amount of money as those who worked for only a short time received, but the owner chastised them saying he paid what was promised. If what we are all to earn is eternal paradise in heaven with the Lord, then Jesus will pay it to whomever turns their lives over to him, regardless of how long it takes or how late in life it comes. While it does seem, at face value, to be a little unfair to those who have devoted their entire lives to Jesus, don’t we want to share the reward with every soul that comes around, no matter how late? Of course we do!
St. Dismas illustrates to us how we should never give up on our loved ones when praying for their conversion because it is never too late. Death bed conversions happen all the time, perhaps even much more often than we think. We must persevere in prayer and trust God to give everyone exactly what they need at just the right time. Just as St. Dismas heard the desperate prayer of Jesus at exactly the right time to be inspired by the truth Jesus had to offer, despite being this man’s worst possible moment, may we also receive from God His consolation and call at exactly the right moment in our own lives.
In this final week of Lent, meditate on the centurion and the good thief and look to their conversions as symbols of hope for all of mankind. Thank them for their witness in response to Jesus Christ. Look forward to the reward of your similar response, which is in heaven with Him forever.