2. The Triumph of Grace
"To-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise" (St. Luke xxiii. 43).
THE words exhibit the triumph of grace. It is in the midst of the blasphemies which add insult to the cruel infliction of pain upon our Lord's Body, that one of the malefactors crucified with Jesus repented.
The patience of our Lord, His prayer of forgiveness for His enemies, His fortitude, the majesty of His perfect manhood had done their work, and while one of the thieves is casting in His teeth the blasphemies of the multitude around the Cross, the other answering rebukes him, saying: "Dost thou not fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds; hut this man that hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, to-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."
As the work of God is always perfect, as it was perfect in creation, as we have seen its triumph in. prayer, so here we see its perfection, its triumph in grace. Nothing is too hard for the love of Christ; nothing can resist that grace except the persistent determination on the part of a man that he will not accept what God offers.
How rich we are in Holy Scripture, and what a treasure we have in this narrative which shows the working of the grace of God in an extreme case like this.
We might have said, "It is hopeless, it is of no use to pray for such an one as this; his whole life has been one of opposition to the law, and here even in his condemnation he would carry out the old defiance and die with blasphemies on his lips.
But the grace of God triumphed here, as it has triumphed again and again in cases like to this, and in the Church of God that grace lives on.
Her doctrine of grace is one of the very chiefest glories of the Church. She applies, through her sacramental channels, by virtue of the Divine commission given to the ministers of God, the Precious Blood of Christ.
In her hands is the price paid for the redemption of man, and our Lord has committed to her ministry the dispensing of those gifts which He purchased with His Blood.
When everyone else despairs of a sinner, our Lord still waits; when the world says it is of no use, the Catholic Church hopes on and prays, for she knows the power of this remedy which her Divine Head has given into her charge.
And see the working of it in this malefactor, who at the eleventh hour is brought to his conversion: "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."
Our Lord is pronouncing His absolution. There is little time to lose; the moments are quickly running out which separate this man from death; the sins of a whole life have to be forgiven; penance is exacted and must be worked out all in a brief compass of time.
But there is also great hope, since the man who has sinned acknowledges the justice of his punishment: "We indeed justly," he says, "for we receive the due reward of our deeds."
That one confession spans the chasm, infinite in breadth, between the sinful, disobedient man and the penitent servant of Christ. The foundation for what God will do is found in that disposition of the soul in which so far from murmuring or complaining at our lot, we, as penitents, acknowledge that we suffer less than we deserve. When that disposition is brought close to the Cross of Christ there is no limit to the triumph of His grace.
Mark how absolute that triumph is. To-day; it is not to be put off; it is not a vague "perhaps," it is not of the future, it does not require years of probation; "To-day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."
And so from the lips of the priest the words of absolution have often been spoken, the brief words "I absolve thee," to some poor man whose life has not been good, dying it may be in great agony. But he lifts up his eyes at the last moment, he acknowledges that he receives no more than his due, and makes his humble confession and claims the love of God, and the words carry out what they say at once: to-day, now, this instant thou art in peace with God.
O! the triumph of Jesus Christ in the sacrament of Penance, the triumph of the grace of God over sin whenever a humble and penitent confession is made!
But absolution does more than simply set the soul free from its burden of sin and wipe out its stains; it brings with it sanctifying grace, it imparts beauty to the soul.
When God thus forgives He at the same time makes the soul beautiful. He never does His work by halves, He always carries it out to a triumphant and glorious conclusion.
The Catholic Church knows nothing of that kind of half forgiveness with which some would seem satisfied, who say: "Perhaps God will let this pass, and will not impart to me the punishment which my sin deserves."
God does not so work. His works are perfect. He who made the world beautiful and pronounced it good, has in the sacraments of His Church again shown His power in the perfection of His work; and whenever He pronounces His word of pardon the soul is set free from sin, nay, more, made fair and beautiful, so that God looks upon it and loves it with His complacent love.
And anyone, even the most grievous sinner, when he turns and comes in confession to Christ, may be likewise transformed to-day.
I said that through the word of pardon, and the work of grace a change is wrought in the condition of the soul so that as God looks upon it He sees what He can love in it.
But this leads on to another gift. When God makes the soul thus beautiful with His grace, He does not hold it at a distance, but He draws it close to Himself; nay, the very imparting of that grace and beauty is in the drawing of the soul to God. There is no such thing as a forgiveness that means being shut off from God; there is no such thing as absolution given, yet Holy Communion, union with God, refused.
We see this exemplified in the perfection of this work of pardon; to-day not only shalt thou be in Paradise, thou shalt be with Me. "I have wrought this work in thee, I have taken away all thy stains, the guilt of all thy transgressions is purged out, My word of pardon has made thee beautiful with sanctifying grace; I take thee to My heart, to-day shalt thou be in Paradise, to-day shalt thou be with Me."
Oh! happy penitent, in a moment of time taken out of the depths of despair and brought to the side of Christ!
Oh! happy penitent, learning from the Cross that the presence of Jesus in suffering turns a Prison house into Paradise!
Oh! Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, potent to cleanse from all sin, that hath won for us our entrance into eternal life! Behold, one drop applied to the soul takes from it its corruption, its foulness, its guilt, making it beautiful, glorious and resplendent, an object of God's love. Why do not all seek it? Why do not all who are stained with sin long for its cleansing, beautifying grace?
Oh! for us who know its virtue, its infinite worth, let us avail ourselves of every means of grace, for in all the sacraments of the Church, from our Baptism to that last touch in the Anointing of the sick, the full power of the Cross and Passion of the Saviour of mankind is applied to the needy soul; and whenever applied and received in faith and penitence it does for us what it did for the penitent thief, it makes good the word: "Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise."