Palm Sunday this year we read St. Luke’s passion narrative, which sees Jesus’ death and resurrection as the culmination of his earthly journey. From Galilee, Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem, to his death on Calvary, his resurrection and finally he ascends into heaven. It’s more than a journey to death, Jesus rises and is welcomed into heaven.
He does not journey alone. In Luke’s gospel, from Galilee to Jerusalem Jesus gathers disciples to accompany him. He does not face death alone– disciples are with him, though he’s abandoned by twelve of them in the Garden of Gethsemane. Simon of Cyrene, coming in from the fields, takes up his cross and carries it behind him. Simon is a symbol of humanity, along with the ” large crowd of people” including “many women who mourned and lamented him,” Though unaware, disciples are with Jesus on the way.
Jesus says to all in Luke’s gospel, “ If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.’”(Luke 9,23-24} Simon represents all the followers of Jesus who go with him on his journey. It’s not only the cross of Jesus Simon carries, it’s “his cross,” his daily cross, his own cross.
Jesus’ words in Luke’s gospel to the women “who mourned and lamented him” are puzzling. Some say he comforts them as he goes to his death. Others say his words are a prophetic announcement of the judgment that inevitably follows injustice. Jerusalem will be destroyed as a consequence. Every unjust act, every sin has consequences that cannot be waived away.
Two criminals accompany Jesus to Calvary, the place of execution just outside the city gates where many people passed. For the Romans it was the perfect place to display their fierce justice. Jesus would die at this hellish place of torture and death, not a place one wished to be or to see.
Yet Luke, like the other evangelists, sees light in this place of death. Instead of harsh justice, suffering and death, God’s mercy and new life are revealed here: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
God’ mercy is revealed here to a criminal crucified with Jesus. Another criminal mocks him from his cross. “Are you not the Messiah. Save yourself and us.” But his companion rebukes him and turns to Jesus with a plea to be remembered. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
More than a remembrance, Jesus promises to take him with him on his journey to God. “Amen I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” As he does so often in Luke’s gospel, Jesus reaches in tender mercy to one without hope.
Like Simon of Cyrene, the thief represents humanity. He’s been promised life and safe passage through the mystery of death. He dies with Jesus. The thief reminds us that eternal life is never denied to anyone.
The thief is a sign for us all. We die, but we die with the Lord. The best place for us to understand the mystery of death is on Calvary.