Sunday, November 25, 2007

Two Tickets to Paradise

(Solemnity of Christ the King-Year C; This homily was given 24 & 25 November, 2007, at St. Mary's Church, Cranston, R.I.; Read 2 Samuel 5:1-3, Luke 23:35-43, and St. Teresa of Avila's Book of Her Life)

It was back in the late 70s and early 80s (I was in grammar school, not to give too much away here!), and one of the most popular songs on the radio was a tune by a man named Eddie Money called “Two Tickets to Paradise.” Now if you have never heard that song before, or if you’ve forgotten it, allow me to refresh your memory. It begins:

Got a surprise especially for you,
Something that both of us have always wanted to do.
We’ve waited so long…

I’ve got two tickets to paradise
Won’t you pack your bags, we’ll leave tonight
I’ve got two tickets to paradise.

If you are familiar with that song then you know that Eddie Money never tells us what paradise is; he never gives us his version. Of course, we can guess what a rock star from the 70s and 80s meant by paradise, but this weekend we can also ask ourselves: How do we define paradise?

I would be willing to bet if you asked five different people that question, you would probably get five different answers. The original meaning of the word paradise, however, goes way back before Eddie Money, and well before Christ Himself. It comes from the ancient Persian culture (modern day Iran) and means, literally, a walled-in garden or enclosed park.

It was customary for the Persian King to allow only a select few subjects of the kingdom to walk with him in that enclosed garden; such intimacy was reserved for only those closest to him. It was a great honor to walk with the king in paradise.

In our gospel this weekend Jesus Christ, the King of Kings, invites the Good Thief to do exactly that. Christ is suffering on the cross in great agony, looking like anything but a king. Nonetheless, the Good Thief next to him recognizes royalty when he sees it. Turning to Christ in the midst of his own suffering, he makes that now famous request:

Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
—Luke 23:42

Suddenly, with great love and in the midst of His own pain, Christ turns to the Good Thief and replies:

Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
—Luke 23:43

Today you will walk with me in my garden.

Today you will be my intimate friend and close companion.

Today you will walk with me in eternal life.

It is a powerful reflection for us this weekend on the Feast of Christ the King. Yet our feast also reminds us that we are all called to share in the intimacy and personal relationship with Christ which the Good Thief enjoys. By virtue of our baptism, we are all intimately connected to Jesus Christ the King.

Part of the Rite of Baptism that occurs immediately after a child is cleansed of Original Sin is the anointing with holy chrism. The priest or deacon uses chrism to make the sign of the cross on the crown—that word is used intentionally in the rubrics for the Rite of Baptism—on the crown of the head. All the baptized share, in a particular way, in the person of Christ and in the kingship of Christ.

In the Old Testament, when kings were taken from among the people they were anointed with oil to signify that they were being chosen for a special task and a particular mission in this world. We saw that this morning in our first reading from the Second Book of Samuel. King David was anointed in Hebron as King of Israel (2 Samuel 5:3).

In the same way all the baptized are anointed as emissaries for Christ; we share His mission in this world and are called also to share in that close, personal relationship with the King of Glory. We do not wait until heaven to participate in that relationship. Christ the King intends for that relationship to take place right here, right now. I would suggest this weekend three way in which that happens; three ways in which we walk with Christ in paradise right here on earth.

The first and irreplaceable way is the way of prayer. St. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century Spanish mystic and Doctor of the Church (and also my Favorite. Saint. Ever.) constantly in her writings refers to Jesus Christ as “His Majesty.” As far as St. Teresa is concerned, He is always Christ the King! Yet in addition to being the King of Kings and Lord of all, St. Theresa also recognizes Him as her intimate and personal friend. In one of the most beautiful definitions on prayer ever given, she describes this friendship in her autobiography:

For mental prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.
—The Book of Her Life, Chapter 8, #5

We walk with the King in paradise whenever we spend time with Him in prayer.

The second way that we experience paradise right here on earth is through the sacramental life of the Church. Especially when we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we are drawn into that intimate relationship with Him that exceeds all earthly limits. The bread and wine on the altar become the Body and Blood of Christ and we are brought together in Christ to share the Bread of Angels and a foretaste of eternal life.

Similarly, when we receive the grace of God in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and hear the words of Christ Himself through the voice of the priest—I absolve you of your sins—the very mercy of God and the power of heaven is poured out for us on earth.

The sacraments draw us into the garden of paradise and allow us to walk closely with Christ the King.

Finally, we walk closely with Christ in paradise whenever we walk closely with Him in our daily lives. It is whenever we invite Him into our hearts, into our homes, into our families and workplaces, whenever we invite Christ into our own “space” that He shows up and brings paradise right along with Him!

This is perhaps never more true than when we invite Him into our suffering. Remember that is that place that the Good Thief discovers Christ in our gospel this weekend. He is suffering beside our Lord and suddenly acknowledges Christ the King, not in bitterness or in hopelessness, but in faith. The result is that great promise of an intimate and eternal relationship with the King:

Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.
—Luke 23:43

And so, prayer, the sacraments and inviting Christ into our daily lives and daily sufferings; these are the ways that Christ calls us to experience a foretaste of heaven and paradise right here on earth.

This weekend, on the Feast of Christ the King, Jesus says to each one of us:

“I’ve got two tickets to paradise, and one of them has your name on it!”