The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week, and the Resurrection

Our Metropolis is most Grateful to Fr. Stavros Akrotirianakis for kindly granting us permission to publish excerpts from his new book “The Road Back to Christ: Reflections on Lent, Holy Week and the Resurrection.”  Those interested in purchasing the text can do so by clicking HERE.

Friday of the Fifth Week of Lent

Salvation is Possible Until the Very Last Moment, But Don’t Wait 

One of the criminals who were hanged, railed at Him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this Man has done nothing wrong.”  And he said, “Jesus, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  And He said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Luke 23:39-43

(From the Eighth Gospel of Holy Thursday Evening)

Jesus was crucified between two thieves.  This was to fulfill the Prophecy of Isaiah, and He was numbered with the transgressors; yet He bore the sin of man, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:12)  One of the criminals looked at the Lord and thought of his own selfish needs.  He asked Christ to save him, if He were really the Christ. 

The other thief didn’t ask for reprieve.  He owned up for his sin to Jesus, saying that he was justly under a sentence of condemnation.  In his dying moments, he believed in the power of Jesus to save not his life, but to save his soul.  And he said to Jesus “Remember me when You come into Your kingdom.”  (Luke 23:42)  Jesus answered the thief, “Truly I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” 

A priest once joked with me that “the thief was such a good thief, that he stole Paradise in the last moment of his life.”  Joking aside, I don’t believe that one can “steal” Paradise.  He believed in the Divinity of Jesus Christ in that final moment.  How do we know this?  Because he asked to be remembered in His Kingdom.  The other thief believed there was nothing after this life.  This is why he pleaded for his life to be extended.  The repentant thief had a recognition in a life in God’s Kingdom—faith.  And he asked not to be placed there, but merely to be “remembered”—humility. 

The keys to salvation are faith and humility.  Because faith is the belief we place in our Lord, and humility is the foundation of a desire to serve others.  The repentant thief had a luxury that we do not have—he knew when his dying breath was going to be.  We do not.  Hence, we must make not only the “confession” of the thief but the application to our life today, before the unknown day of our last breath.  For even in his dying breath, it wasn’t too late to repent and believe.  After one has died, however, it is too late.

There are two other things that jump out from today’s scripture verses.  First, the statement of the repentant thief to the unrepentant one: “Do you not fear God?”  I often ponder on this question as we witness acts of unspeakable horror in our world today—from terrorism, wanton violence, white collar criminals who embezzle and steal, etc.  I wonder “do they not fear God?”  Because anyone with a fear of God is going to think twice before doing some of the things that we do.  When I examine my own life, I sometimes shudder with horror at things I have done and said, and then try to remember that we all, myself included, need to have a healthy fear (and love and respect and awe) of God, to keep our temptations and desires in check.  Anyone who has gossiped or lied about someone is a thief—because lying and gossiping steals self-esteem and self-worth of others.  Let us not be like the repentant thief who had no concept of God, and whose exposure to the very Son of God only feet away from him produced no repentance in him.

The second thing that also jumps out is the message of Christ to the repentant thief, “TODAY, you will be with Me in Paradise.”  Jesus said “TODAY,” not at the second coming, or in a long time from now, but the very day you die, you will experience the Kingdom of God.  There are lots of conjectures about what happens when we die. The story of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46) speaks of all the nations being gathered before Christ TOGETHER for the final judgment.  His words to the repentant thief point to a judgment that is immediate, which points to two possible interpretations.  In 2 Peter 3:8, we read “But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.”  If God’s time and man’s time move at different speeds, then in God’s time, the Judgment could be “today”, even though in man’s time the Judgment may be thousands of years away.  A second interpretation is the belief that one receives a “partial” judgment upon his earthly death—either a foretaste of Paradise or a foretaste of condemnation—and receives the full measure of reward or punishment at the Last Judgment.  These are two explanations of the use of the word “TODAY” in Jesus’ speaking to the thief.

Finally, in many depictions of the crucifixion, the Cross of Christ has bars above or below Him that angle up to the right.  This symbolizes that the repentant thief, the one to the right of Christ (the same side as the “sheep” on the right hand, Matthew 25:33), went “up” to Paradise.  The angling of the bar down to the left symbolizes the unrepentant thief who was numbered among the “goats” (Matthew 25:33) and went “down” to Hades.  

The thief upon the cross spoke in a low tone, but found great faith.  In an instant he was saved, and being the first to open the Gates of Paradise, he entered.  O Lord, Who accepted his repentance, glory to You.  (From the 14th Antiphon of the Service of the 12 Gospels on Holy Thursday Evening, Trans. by Fr. George Papadeas)

Make your journey to salvation an important part of every day, starting with today!

The Format of This Book 

In the Orthodox Christian Church, the feast of the Resurrection is referred to as “Pascha”, rather than “Easter.”  The date of Pascha is calculated each year so that it falls after the first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox, provided that the feast of Passover has occurred.  This results many times in a difference in the dates that the Resurrection is celebrated between the Orthodox Church and other Christian denominations.  Roughly 20% of the time, both the Orthodox Church and the other churches celebrate the Resurrection on the same day.  About 20% of the time, the date is five weeks off.  And the rest of the time, the date is one week off. 
There is 19 Sunday (18 week) period of time each year in the Orthodox Church that surrounds the Feast of Pascha.  The first three weeks, including four Sundays, are called the Triodion, or pre-Lenten period.  The next forty days, which includes nearly six weeks and five Sundays, is called Great Lent.  In the Orthodox Church, Great Lent begins on a Monday called Clean Monday, rather than Ash Wednesday, as it does in the other churches.  Great Lent ends on a Friday.
Holy Week follows Great Lent and it begins on a day called “Saturday of Lazarus.”  Palm Sunday follows, along with Great and Holy Week. The Feast of the Resurrection is called Pascha and it begins a forty day period of celebration.  After forty days, the church celebrates the Feast of the Ascension.  Ten days later (fifty days after the Resurrection), the church celebrates the Feast of Pentecost.  The Sunday after Pentecost is the Feast of All Saints.  This ends this cycle of “movable feasts” (called this because their date moves every year) which surround the feast of Pascha. The intention of this book is that it is to be read according to the Orthodox celebration of Lent, Holy Week, Pascha and Pentecost in a given year.