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Celebrations of faith: Good Thief represents redemption

April 17, 2011

NORTH KINGSTOWN – When Myra Mudge heard there was to be an ecumenical series of Lenten lunches at churches all over town, she went to the Rev. Bertrand Theroux, pastor of St. Francis de Sales Roman Catholic Church, and asked: Can we do it?
“He said yes,” she recalled. “It’s the first time we’ve had it here and I’ve been looking forward to it so much. It’s all so wonderful.”
As the organizer of last week’s event at the church on School Street, she can take pride in a job well done.
“We set up for 100,” she said. “I’m so glad of the turnout and so thankful” to participate in the highly-successful program.
To date, each of the five Lenten celebrations has drawn approximately 100 participants. They’ve filled fellowship halls at all the churches and many new friendships have formed among people of differing denominations as they shared their faith over simple meals of soup and bread.
At each presentation, the pastor of the host church has tackled the importance of a figure present during Holy Week. Fr. Bert, who followed brilliant characterizations of Mary the mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Judas and St. Peter, portrayed The Good Thief, crucified next to Christ.
His insights were equally masterful but he joked before starting that his choice was between Judas and The Good Thief. “I took the lesser of two evils,” he said. He set the scene dramatically: Jesus and the thief, each suffering and dying on a cross – Jesus the innocent victim; the thief a criminal and a sinner.
“He was a liar; he stole, was greedy,” described Fr. Bert. “But in the end, he asks Jesus to remember him and Jesus promises to do that.”
The priest reminded the gathering that The Good Thief is given no name and, because he is a common, flawed person, “he’s like us. You could put our names in place of The Good Thief and the story wouldn’t change.”
Assuming the character of the thief, Fr. Bert imagined what his final thoughts might have been.
“How much do I know about Jesus? If I knew him, I would be prepared for his death. I would be like Lazarus, going to the grave and waiting for Jesus to call me from the dead. I might not be paying attention to the Lord’s terrible suffering but I know it’s not fair.”
The thief, he said, was fearful at the end but gave his heart to the Lord.
“We’ll be separated in death,” said Fr. Bert, in character. “No one will hear me in the dark. There will be heavy shadows. Can he hear me? Can I get his attention?”
And then, before he died, The Good Thief spoke to Jesus with complete belief – a cornerstone of the Christian faith. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
The priest noted that the thief “needed to be close to Jesus, to depend on him in the darkness.”
Speaking once more as himself, Fr. Bert told the assembly that Christians still struggle to understand what happened at Calvary. “We try to make sense of the crucifixion; the thought that Jesus died for me, for you, for all of us. Does it make sense that he died this way? It is a mystery of great proportion.”
He reaffirmed that Jesus’ words of reassurance – “You will be with me in paradise” – are true in every age.
“He begins anew each day. It is a gift to all who walk in faith.” In his conclusion, Fr. Bert led the group in the beautifully prayerful taizé (pronounced tie-zay) chant: O Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
It ended in absolute silence.
The Rev. Betty-Rae Hopkins, pastor of First Baptist Church of North Kingstown, who had interpreted Mary Magdalene earlier in the series, found the message thought-provoking.
“When anybody talks in the first person,” she said, “it’s a different approach rather than just reading Scripture. We don’t think of the other [figures at the crucifixion]; we can only imagine their state of mind.
“I was thinking of the ‘Jesus, remember me’ taizé before he started singing.”
Nancy Armstrong, a member of First Baptist in Wickford, said of the ecumenical series, “I love it. Worldwide, we’re saying we don’t need to hide our candles under a bushel. We can show the next generation what we’re about.”
The final segment, in which the Rev. John Unsworth, pastor of St. Bernard Roman Catholic Church, interpreted the importance of John, was held yesterday.
Coverage will appear in next week’s Standard Times.
Martha Smith is a freelance writer for Southern Rhode Island Newspapers.

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