Dear friends. One of the most moving films of recent years was one called ‘Of God’s and Men’. It tells the story of a community of Cistercian monks in Algeria who lived among and served the local Muslim community. They were murdered on 21st May 1996 by terrorists. The Abbott of the Monastery, Fr Christian, suspected that this might happen so before his death he wrote a letter that was found afterwards. The closing words of the letter were addressed to the man who would kill him. He wrote: ‘And you, my last minute friend who would not have known what you were doing. Yes, for you too I say this ‘Thank You’ as I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy and ‘good thieves’ in paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both’.
What extraordinary mercy in these words that can only have come from a man of God! These are words born from the same mercy that Jesus shows the good thief in the Gospel for this Sunday. The fact that Fr Christian referred to both his killer and himself as ‘good thieves’ and praying for paradise for them both is proof that today’s Gospel inspired his forgiveness and his love that embraced all the people of Algeria.
Fr Christian wrote these words in the shadow of his own death. He was helpless and a victim of violence. So too was Jesus. At a moment of utter agony and helplessness, it seemed that power and violence were about to win the day. That was the way of the Romans. Might was right. But somehow the good thief had the grace to see beyond the darkness of himself and to make one final act of faith. He asked Jesus to ‘remember me when you come into your kingdom’. With those words, he recognised the truth in the mocking title over Jesus’ head: ‘This is the King of the Jews’. He recognised that Jesus’ kingdom was not like that of the Romans or any worldly power. It was a kingdom of forgiveness, truth, mercy, justice and love. Jesus’ promise of paradise went beyond what he could have ever hoped for. The good thief asked to be remembered. Instead he was promised heaven. Here was the love that inspired people like Fr Christian and so many others down the centuries including those who are persecuted for their faith today. They saw and continue to see that God’s kingdom triumphs in the end.
If only more of us could have this personal experience of God’s mercy! Yet this same experience is available and open to each of us. All we need do is ask. Like the good thief, we too can be crucified by illness, sudden loss, personal failure or many other things. We human beings can sink into darkness and despair. But see how God comes down in search of us. See how he comes beside us and is with us. Through Jesus, God enters the world of violence and despair and dies between two thieves. He draws close to the one He loves and wants to save. As we ask the Lord to remember us, may we never forget him.
On this feast of Christ the King, may we join the army of the risen king and take ownership of our share in Jesus kingship that we received at baptism. To all those who hate us or who are different to us we repeat the words of Fr Christian who said of his killer: ‘for you too I say this ‘Thank You’ as I commend you to the God in whose face I see yours. And may we find each other, happy and ‘good thieves’ in paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both’. Together let us profess our faith in our God and Father who descends to human despair and offers mercy to us all.