We all have a lot of ideas about paradise. For some it’s a trip to Las Vegas, where for them paradise may just be, homophonically, a pair of dice.
For others, it’s a beachy place with a sea breeze (instead of a powerful air conditioner) or wildflowers near a lake or being surrounded by loved ones or love itself, or music with love, or well, the list could go on.
And then I got to thinking about love, and Paradise along with it and, well, given the season of the year, I was thinking, too, of the proverbial thief on the cross. Jesus says to one of them, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). In that very familiar verse, Jesus speaks not only the promise of Paradise but he speaks love, a very present love. When one stops to think about it, one realizes that, for that suffering, dying man Love is right there, before him.
Now we might think of Paradise as something like a beautiful beach or even the enjoyment of two luscious drinks at a far-away bar (or even a familiar one); yet Paradise for that thief on the cross and for the One who speaks him into that Paradise probably turned out, that first Good Friday so very long ago, to be a place rife with other unfortunate people, people whom you wouldn’t expect to find in any earthly paradise. After all, the people Jesus came to care for were, for the most part, impoverished, needy, psychologically screwed up.
Given that it’s Maundy Thursday, I will take the fitting example of Mary. Not Mary, the Mary to whom many a cathedral is dedicated—and we here lament, yet again the extensive damage to the greatest cathedral to Jesus’ mother, Mary, Nôtre Dame de Paris—but the Mary whose life was screwed up so badly, the one whom Dan Brown novels have him married to: Mary Magdalene, for it is possible that it is her name that gives rise to the holy day known as Maundy Thursday. Mary is believed to be the woman who perfumed Jesus’ feet with her hair preparing him, Jesus says prophetically, for burial. She is also believed to have been a prostitute or at least a woman who was rather free with herself sexually. Yet Jesus did not reject her as unclean and unworthy; rather, he reached out to her, brought him close to himself, forgave her for all her sins, not just her sexual ones, and loved her. And she loved him for that, and for much more. And we can, too.
But back to Paradise. If there are in fact needy, unfortunate people there, chances are there’s service to be rendered them. Maybe some who show up in such a paradisiacal place should assume that they will have something to do when they arrive—serving the needy, caring for the poor, bandaging the wounds of those who are hurt in some way, whether physically or spiritually. And their own wounds, psychological, spiritual and physical, can be healed there, too. If that is the case, maybe heavenly Paradise, the place that Jesus is speaking about on the cross, isn’t so much a resort but really a place where we will have the privilege of serving. And maybe that’s what the psalmist means when he writes, “Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked” (Psalm 84:10 NIV). I think Mary Magdalene understood that, for she had begun already serving before she ever entered Paradise.
The most comfortable paradises that we shall find on earth are wonderful, and can be a great opportunity to recover from the stress and strain of our daily lives. Good stuff. But the Paradise of Heaven, will be better by far, though possibly less comfortable; it will be far more filled with love, but undoubtedly less sexy; it will poorer, and yet I think it will be far richer and even, I think, more beautiful. For in it there will be the ebb and flow of real Love.
And, then again, there just might be delicious drinks there, as well. Who knows? In any case, I have a feeling that the Paradise that is on Jordan’s far bank is going to be both a bit different than anything we can imagine and even better that anyone on this side of Jordan could begin to describe. However it may turn out to be, there can be little doubt but that it will be filled with mercy, for that is what Jesus speaks to the thief on the cross, and it is that very thing—mercy—which this season, more than any other, proclaims.
A Blessed Maundy (i.e. Magdalene) Thursday to you and, soon, a Happy Easter! May you both enjoy some temporary paradises on this earth and, more importantly, may you, like Mary, find true love, enduring mercy and the true paradoxical Paradise, hopefully sooner rather than later.