by Fr. Murray Kuemper.
I was first approached about celebrating Paul Holland’s funeral Mass during the time when he was dying and we were keeping watch with him.
He was not verbally responsive at the time, but we believe that he was aware of us. He was enduring what appeared to be a great physical trial—spasms that repeatedly wracked his whole body. We had guesses as to what might be happening medically, but no real answers. We could only be with him and do our best to try and ease his pain.
And in our helplessness before this, several of us, I believe, received a real gift—a hard gift, but a gift nonetheless.
It was a grace of knowing and accepting our powerlessness before a mystery that was being played out in our midst. Not just the mystery of what was happening medically—that was part of it—but the mystery of what was happening between Paul and his God.
There was a profound encounter going on, a dialogue on the level of body, mind and soul, a dialogue to which we were not to be privy. We were simply called to watch and wait, to support Paul and to pray.
It was in the midst of this that the gospel passage, Luke 23:39-43, came to mind—the passage about the encounter between the crucified Jesus and the criminal hanging at his side, the criminal we have come to know as "the Good Thief."
At first I simply saw a connection between this man’s contrition and his appeal to Jesus—connecting that with what I knew had been Paul’s request for the inscription on his cemetery cross: "God, forgive me." So I made that connection with mercy in the Gospel, mercy humbly sought and graciously given.
But as I continued to sit with Paul, this Gospel kept opening up more and more to me. In it, we read only the brief words that were exchanged between Jesus and the thief. Very beautiful words, words that have been hope for sinners, including this one here, in every age and place where the Gospel is preached.
But it seemed to me that more had gone on beneath these words, leading up to these words.
Not many words are spoken by the thief or by Jesus. It’s difficult for a crucified man to speak very much. Yet what we read is a holy and mysterious glimpse of an encounter of a man with his God. It is the culmination of a much deeper inner dialogue and action.
It’s an encounter of stark honesty. Both men, Jesus and the thief, are stripped of all worldly human dignity. Moreover, Jesus has laid aside all his divine glory and honor.
He is simply pouring his whole self out, in love and in sacrifice. And as Jesus pours out his life, grace is poured out, because his life is grace. And wherever there is grace, a response is called forth.
In the Gospels we see those around Jesus in his passion respond to this grace in various ways. The apostles flee in fear; this grace has a cost too great for them to bear right now. His Mother and a few women remain in quiet devotion, simply being there with him.
The soldiers are indifferent at best. The Pharisees and the priests are closed to this grace and simply mock him. And one thief is so turned in on himself that he can only angrily mock Jesus.
But the other thief dying so close to Jesus, in encountering that love and grace poured out, makes a choice. He chooses to let Jesus in. He chooses to let grace in.
And as he does that, I imagine that his whole life is laid bare, the whole of his life to be challenged, re-evaluated in the light of this encounter. To be judged, so that he might be contrite, and therefore touched by mercy, purified, forgiven, and healed.
All of this is hidden, very silent, a great mystery, the details only known by the man and the Lord.
But when pushed by the other thief’s defiance and abuse of Jesus, the Good Thief makes his choice explicit. He chooses to know the truth of his life and death, to place them before the Lord in total humility, to seek his place only in Christ.
He has made a journey, from simply sharing with Jesus the same time slot in the Roman execution schedule, to being physically next to Jesus on the cross, to choosing to be with Jesus on the cross in a very deep way. I would say that he has chosen—to use an image from Catherine Doherty—to be on the other side of Our Lord’s cross with him.
He has gone from simply suffering punishment to taking a share in Christ’s death. His own death is willingly accepted and offered, and therefore it is transformed. And by sharing in a death like Christ’s, he receives the promise of sharing in new life. This day you will be with Me in Paradise.
All of this opened up for me during those last few days with our brother Paul. And I believe this is what we were witnessing in him, hidden though it was. I think we were witnessing his encounter with the Lord.
We were "seeing" Paul’s life and suffering and dying, in a mysterious encounter with Christ’s life, passion, and death. The details, of course, we couldn’t begin to guess. But we knew that we were present while a sacred mystery was being worked out—a mystery that Paul had clearly chosen to enter into.
Paul was a man of few words at any time. But in those last few weeks, like for the thief on the cross, speaking was very difficult for Paul. And so his words, when he chose to speak, were thought out and carefully chosen.
About a week or so before his death, Paul said to Linda Owen, one of his care-givers: "This is my passion." And just in case we didn’t get it, he repeated it for her: "This is my passion."
He seemed to be giving consent to God for what was going to be asked of him, for what he was enduring already.
Whatever needed to be addressed, whatever needed to be offered, whatever needed to be purified, whatever needed to be atoned for—for himself or on behalf of another—Paul made a choice to be on the other side of Christ’s cross.
This, my brothers and sisters, is the life and death of a Christian. We might drift along, but at some point, we must make a choice. There is no other way.
—Fr. Murray works part-time as a care-giver for our elderly. This article was excerpted and adapted from his homily at Paul Holland’s funeral Mass.
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