High on a hilltop overlooking the beautiful city of Venice, Italy, there lived an old blind man who was a genius. Legend had it he could answer any question anyone might ask of him. Two of the local boys figured they could fool the old man, so they caught a small bird and headed for his residence. One of the boys held the little bird in his hands and asked the old man if the bird was dead or alive.
Without hesitation the old man said, “Son, if I say to you that the bird is alive, you will close your hands and crush it to death. If I say the bird is dead, you will open your hands and the bird will fly away. You see, Son, in your hands you hold the power of life and death.”
Today we focus on the crucifixion of Jesus. In witnessing this event through the pages of scripture we are often asked to understand what part we play. What would our role have been at the crucifixion? The correct answer is that we were the ones who crucified Jesus. We were the ones who nailed him to the Cross. Most have understood this: Rembrandt, in his painting, The Raising of the Cross, has one clear figure lifting up the cross of Christ – himself. Mel Gibson in the movie the Passion of the Christ, when it came to the scene of the soldier holding the nail to Jesus’ palm he could think of no one more suited for the job than himself. We are the crucifiers of Christ, but our roles do not end there.
John’s Gospel version of the Passion tells us, “There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, with Jesus between them.” Yet, when we go to Luke’s Gospel we hear the words that were spoken by these two criminals: “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ But the other criminal rebuked him. ‘Don’t you fear God,’ he said, ‘since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”
Both knew that the wages of sin is death, yet the first, even though he had knowingly sinned believed that he was being unfairly treated. However, the second knew his sin well and knew that as awful as it was, he was being treated fairly. The first cursed God. The second called on God’s mercy. The result of their actions: the first received eternal death and the second eternal life. Yes, we are the ones who crucified Jesus, but we are also one of these two thieves. As the wise man outside the city of Venice said to the boys, “You see, in your hands you hold the power of life and death.” Not the life or death of a bird or of another human being; you have the power of eternal life or eternal death for yourself.
At some point in our lives we are all given the opportunity to recognize our need for God’s grace. We are given the opportunity to turn to Jesus and speak to Him the same words that the second thief spoke, “Remember me.” The instant we speak those words, the fact that we were responsible for crucifying Jesus is remembered no more. And it is in the same instant that we hear those blessed words of Jesus spoken to us, “Amen, I say to you … you shall be with me in paradise.”