In Holy Week, the Church remembers the “Wise Thief,” the robber on the cross who asks Christ to “remember me in your kingdom.” In what has to be one of my favorite hymns of the week the Church sings:
The Wise Thief didst Thou make worthy of Paradise, in a single moment, O Lord. By the wood of thy Cross illumine me as well, and save me.
The striking part of this hymn is the phrase, “In a single moment.” From a modern evangelical point of view there is nothing terribly significant in this event. Here is Jesus with two thieves. Everyone is being crucified. One of them simply professes faith in Christ and is rewarded with the promise, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Orthodoxy marvels at this for a variety of reasons. One of them is the suddenness of the moment. As far as we know, the thief was a thief and, as he himself confesses, “We are suffering the just penalty for our crimes.” He has not been a follower of Christ.
All of this is further mediation on the earlier question, “How do we come to believe in Christ?” We cannot analyze the technique of Christ on the Cross. We do not hear Jesus saying to the two thieves, “You know, all of your righteousness is as filthy rags, but if you place your faith in me you can be saved…” or some such version of modern evangelical proclamation.
He had not said anything to them.
What we have is one of those strange moments that the Kingdom of God breaks through in a human life and in this case, the hardened heart of a thief, a man who made his living breaking into to people’s homes and stealing, simply hears the truth in a context in which his heart has changed.
“In a single moment,” the hymn says. This is an Orthodox wonderment, because we, appropriately, “work out our salvation” as a life-long process. Struggling, fasting, praying, giving-alms, repenting, seeking salvation – and here, a thief, who has done none of these things, finds that in a single moment paradise is his.
It is a testimony to us of the mercy of God. He would accept us in a single moment. It is not harder than that.
But rare is it in our lives that we allow ourselves to come to such a moment. We live carefully – carefully enough that unless something really bad comes along we have avoided such a single moment. In some ways, our salvation is lived out over a lifetime because we are afraid to have it “in a single moment.”
It is true that some evangelicals trivialize the “singleness of the moment,” requiring virtually nothing, and getting almost as much in return.
On the other hand, we Orthodox can be guilty of ignoring the power of a single moment. The great startsy (elders) of our tradition were not afraid to bring people to such moments. It’s part of the stuff that makes them famous.
Matthew the Poor, the Coptic monk who has been so influential in the 20th century, once wrote that if we kept even one of Christ commandments with “all our heart, soul and mind,” it would become for us the door to the Kingdom of God. This is true, but the implication is that we rarely keep any of the commandments in such a manner. We do not pray like the thief, we do not repent like the thief, we do not see Jesus like the thief or ourselves like the thief. We see so much more incrementally, and thus risk our salvation over such a long period of our lives.
How do we come to know Christ? “In a single moment if we wished it.” And this I can say to any Orthodoxy brother or sister. “In a single moment if you wished it.”
And it brings me up short. In a single moment I want to be left alone, to take a break, to think about something else, to tend to a lesser matter, to take care of a Church job (who knows what things I’d rather do than that single moment). But in a single moment we could know paradise. May we know such a single moment, and perhaps not so long from now.