EVERY YEAR, BY UNSPOKEN tradition, churches get specific phone calls at certain times. In the Catholic Church, two expected phone calls are, “What time is Midnight Mass?” and “What times are you giving out ashes?” In the Russian Orthodox Church, one expected phone call in Holy Week was, “What time is the Wise Thief?” The Wise Thief is a verse of hymnody sung three times during the Matins of Good Friday, which is to say on Thursday night of Holy Week. It’s very short yet is often sung to three very different musical settings (one right after the other) and stretched out. Anything sung three times in the Orthodox Church is given a theological highlight. The Wise Thief turns to Jesus and begs, “Remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.” He is given the answer, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” And then we sang:
The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise,
in a single moment, O Lord.
By the wood of Thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.
We were discussing this at a Courage meeting a few weeks ago – and focusing on the process of repentance that brings us to where we are. It is possible to argue, in a very Pelagian way, about getting one’s life together and setting everything right. A lot can hinge on it, you know: we must get all the ducks in a row and finally turn to God. But the Wise Thief, by tradition, St Dismas, is a strong argument against that. Dismas was a dismal failure: he did nothing right except at the end.
Think about it: he was such a terrible robber that instead of just cutting off a hand and making him a beggar, he was crucified. Actually, he got caught, then he was crucified. He was a failure as an evil mastermind. But what brought him to such straights? Was he a drunkard? Was he in gambling debt? Was he simply trying to feed his family? Had he been caught stealing from a roman soldier or sleeping with the wrong woman? And what brought him there in the first place? Was he a Roman far from home? Was he poor and enslaved? Look, you don’t end up hanging on a cross by being good and sucking up to all the right people. Yet there he was.
And somehow, he was there next to God. And in a single moment, the entire life that had failed in so many ways became the path that God used to bring Dismas to himself. WIthout failure, without the sins, without the trial, without the cross, he would not be next to Jesus who – in a single moment of grace – made all things new. Jesus made that broken road of a sinful life to be the road that brought Dismas right before the Throne of God’s Glory, the Cross.
Jesus says, “Behold I make all things new.”
In the Cross, sin becomes the path to God, death becomes the path to life, and cursing becomes the path to blessedness. Our fallen world becomes the steps we climb to heaven.
Repentance is not turning around and running away: but rather a turning over to God so that he can make it all new. The sin of Adam which damned u all becomes in the incarnation, the Felix Culpa, the Happy Fault that opens the gateway to an even more glorious redemption. All things are new.
This was all rumbling in my mind when I read the following paragraph:
Gentiles also live in poverty, they also have to worry about demons and evil spirits, but the world around them is the one that they’re meant to be in. Oylem haze, [this world], is their world. Religious Christians might see themselves as pilgrims on earth, sojourners waiting to die and go live with Jesus, but there’s a big difference between a pilgrim and a refugee, even when both shlep along the same road. The Christian ideal is to be in this world, but not of it; the Jewish problem, the problem of the Jews in goles [exile], is being of this world but still not in it. We eat, sleep, go to the toilet, and die. We pay taxes and serve in the army and do business, but we’re shut out, excluded from all the usual sources of pleasure we’re on Turtle Island, and turtles are treyf [unkosher]. The chief sources of Jewish joy, shabbes and Torah, aren’t part of this world, either. Traditional Jewish culture has everything but oylem haze, which means “sensual pleasure” in Yiddish, the today for which hedonists live. Where the gentile world is an endless series of sequential “nows,” the Jewish world is nothing but “thens,” thens of the past and thens of the future: “then we were… then we’ll be… now we’re nothing.” Without the Temple, the world is nothing but another klipe, a confining husk that cannot be shaken off until the Messiah comes and redeems us.Born to Kvetch, by Michael Wex (2005). p. 141-142
That last sentence, “Without the Temple, the world is nothing but another klipe, a confining husk…” struck me as a reality not only for Jews but also for everyone who lives without Messiah. “Gentiles also live in poverty, they also have to worry about demons and evil spirits, but the world around them is the one that they’re meant to be in.” This world is a confining husk that cannot be shaken off. Yet Christians are not in this world without the Messiah, nor without the Temple. Wex (and other Jewish writers) are fine with letting Jesus be the Gentile Messiah. He’s just not their Messiah. But there is only one. The Temple Wex is missing is the living Body of Messiah (John 2:21), that is the Church, and each of our bodies is a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19). This is also Jesus making all things new. We are not trapped in a husk. We are dancing in heaven, even now. This world is no longer one of Exile but (as the author noted) one of Pilgrimage. The issue is not one of civic or political power, but rather one of grace: in a single moment, Messiah rewrites the map. We are in the same world, we are dealing with the same issues, we have the same pains and the same lives. But being made new, the lives and pains come to a different end even walking the very same paths. “All the way to heaven is heaven,” as St Catherine of Siena says. “For Jesus said, ‘I am the way.'” He makes all things new: the Broken Road is Christ in our life if we but let him make it so.
This is what making all things new means. In a single moment, Jesus can take a broken sex addict and turn her into a saint (Mary of Egypt). In a single moment he can take thief and bring him to heaven. We all have the same story:
- I was a mess
- By God’s grace I was able to see that
- Then I tried for a long time to fix it
- By God’s grace I was brought to see only God can fix it
- So I said yes
- He’s fixing it
- In a single moment, I realized it was only by God’s grace that I was able to say yes or even to realize it
- God is making all things new
There is no other story: the only things that change are the particulars. The only thing that happens ever is Jesus makes all things new. He doesn’t undo them, he doesn’t remove them. He doesn’t fix them. In a single moment, he makes it so all roads lead to him. Later you realize, as my Mom says, “He never let go of your hand.”