A reminder from St. Augustine guarantees to warm the heart yet chill the blood: “Two criminals were crucified with Christ: one was saved—do not despair; one was not—do not presume.”
About these two, we know absolutely nothing, a fact that hasn’t prevented pious speculation from building whole biographies about the one whose eleventh-hour discovery of Christ allows us to say of him, in the words of Shakespeare, “Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it.”
But I’m not one to slight the other criminal. Perhaps he was an associate of Barabbas, the revolutionary hero released that same morning at the behest of the mob. Perhaps he was a freedom fighter, determined to see Israel’s independence or to see Rome leveled by his attempt to gain it. In any case, in his harshest hour, he shows spirit. That’s what his taunting of Jesus reflects—a defiant spirit similar to what Dylan Thomas wanted his father to show even as his life expired:
Do not go gently into that good night,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
He raged all right, this thief; no whiner, he was a fighter to the end. Frederick Buechner writes: “To grit your teeth and to clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still.” The defiant thief could not be saved because a clenched fist cannot accept a helping hand.
The other criminal is also on a cross of isolation. He who is guilty hears the One, who of all people is the victim of injustice, pray for the forgiveness of His executioners. Such love proves too much. His own defiant heart breaks. He cries out, “Jesus, remember me” (Luke 23:42). And in his last hour, on a cross, Christ performs His last miracle.
In portraying the story of Creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo pictures the bond of love as it was first established. Surrounded by cherubim and seraphim, God simply reaches down His arm from heaven to touch Adam’s extended hand. But the bond, once rent, is not easily restored. Sin has its price, and so has forgiveness.
Restoration takes place on two crosses when One in agony stretches out His hand and says, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). That is what atonement (at-one-ment) is all about.
Peter & Grace Chang, The Gift of God
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