A glimpse of Paradise … or clever marketing by a holiday agency?
2, Luke 23: 43
Reading: Luke 23: 39-43.
The words: ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
Reflection: (2) Salvation
The Αποκαθήλωσις (Apokathelosis) … a traditional representation of the deposition of the body of the dead Christ in Orthodox iconography
‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’
This saying, the second of the seven last words of Christ on the Cross, is traditionally called ‘The Word of Salvation.’ According to Saint Luke’s Gospel, Jesus was crucified between two thieves. One of these two thieves realises that Christ is innocent and calls on him to remember him when he comes into his kingdom.
Christ replies to the Good Thief: ‘Truly, I say to you …,’ or ‘Amen, I say to you …’ (Αμήν λέγω σοί, amen legō soi), and then, on the only occasion recorded in the Gospels, he uses the word ‘Paradise’ (Παράδεισος, Paradeisōs), from the Persian word pairidaeza, meaning a ‘walled garden,’ and by extension, a ‘royal park’ or enclosure.
There are only two other uses of the word Paradise in the New Testament, neither of which is spoken by Christ:
In his second letter to the Church in Corinth, the Apostle Paul gives a description of how ‘a certain person’ – perhaps Saint Paul himself – ‘was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat’ (II Corinthians 12: 4).
And in his Letter to the Church in Ephesus during his Revelation in his exile on Patmos, Saint John the Divine has Christ saying: ‘To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God’ (Revelation 2: 7).
In listening to the Word of God, Paul is caught up into a vision of Paradise.
In listening to the Word of God in the cave in Patmos, Saint John has a vision of Paradise as a taste of God’s promises.
In speaking this ‘Word of Salvation’ from the Cross, Christ is inviting the penitent thief to join him in the royal enclosure.
And he invites you and me, in Word and Sacrament, into the Royal Enclosure too. Not to look back to the Garden of Eden, but to look forward to the heavenly city, to join the heavenly host before the Lamb on the throne.
Have you ever had a glimpse of Paradise?
I know a pub on Sandford Street in Lichfield that is called Paradise, and a tavern called Paradise in Georgioupoli in Crete. But they are not the sort of places I am talking about.
I have a few favourite places that offer me glimpses of what I dream Paradise might be like: I snatch these glimpses walking the beaches in Co Kerry I have got to know in these two years here in this parish; strolling around the Cathedral Close in Lichfield at night, when the lights are out, beneath the star-filled skies; travelling by train along the banks of the River Slaney from Enniscorthy down to Wexford Harbour; on the bus from Iráklion to Réthimnon in Crete, as the sun is about the set behind the Venetian fortezza; the road down the Knockmealdown Mountains that descends from Mount Melleray to Cappoquin, and then passes along the banks of the Blackwater to Lismore.
Have you ever had a glimpse of Paradise?
I don’t mean to ask did you ever have a mystical vision, like that reported by Saint Paul, or those described by Saint Teresa of Avila or Saint John of the Cross.
I mean did you ever have a glimpse of what God’s promise might be like for you?
I know of at least three places that actually have the name Paradise.
The Byzantine Church of Aghios Pandeleímon … next to the Paradise Taverna near Kastélli in the mountains above Iráklion
The first of these three places named Paradise is on the Greek island of Crete. Some years ago, on one of our many, lengthy holidays in Crete, we drove up to Kastélli, in the mountains above Iráklion, when we came across a sign pointing down a dirt track with the words: ‘Byzantine Church and Paradise.’
The route passes through vast orchards and a densely vegetated landscape. But the Paradise we were being pointed to is the Paradise Taverna, which is run by the eccentric Nikolaides family. But the family also holds the keys to the Byzantine Church of Aghios Pandeleímon dating back to the tenth century, with powerful frescoes.
Over the centuries, the monastery has been destroyed several times by pirate raiders and by the Turks. In more recent years, there has only been one monk at the most living in Aghios Pandeleímon.
When we arrived, we found it was up to the Nikolaides family at the Paradise Taverna to decide who could or who could not enter the church. They may not have had the keys to Paradise, but they certainly had the keys to the basilica. And we were allowed in that hot summer’s morning.
Inside, there are unusual icons of Saint Anne mothering the Child Mary, Mary who would mother the Christ Child and mourn the Christ who is taken down from the Cross on Good Friday.
One of the notable surviving frescoes from the same monastery is one of the Αποκαθήλωσις (Apokathelosis). This is a traditional representation of the dead Christ in Orthodox iconography. And it was a timely reminder in that shaded garden café on that summer’s day of the link between the death of Christ and our invitation to Paradise, the royal garden.
The second of these three places named Paradise is in Cambridge. On the north bank of the River Cam as it enters the city, Paradise is a small, low-lying nature reserve that includes Paradise Island.
This fragment of semi-natural habitat was once a common on the margins of Cambridge. Because it is still on the flood plain of the Cam, large parts of Paradise are frequently under water during winter, turning it into a wet and muddy wood. But this also guarantees that Paradise is safe from building development.
Extensive work was carried out on Paradise Nature Reserve a few years ago, so that over-hanging trees were cleared from the footpaths, making access to the site unimpeded. Pollarding and coppicing – forms of pruning that allow regenerative growth – have increased the potential life span of the willows in Paradise, and in recent years 50 hazel whips were planted along with a rural hedgerow.
Paradise in Cambridge is a reminder that we are entrusted with the care of God’s creation, that we are co-partners with God in creation, but have responsibility for how we take care of his garden.
Swimming is a pleasure in the clean, clear, aquamarine waters at Lost Paradise Beach, with sand that seems to stretch for miles out into the sea (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)
The third Paradise I know is a small sandy beach with blue waters and the delightful name of ‘Lost Paradise,’ below an hotel near Kuşadasi in western Turkey where we stayed for a week or two, on two holidays some years ago.
A steep path behind the Palmin Sunset Hotel leads down to the small beach known as Kayip Cennet or Lost Paradise. The path is tough and difficult for anyone with my health problems, but the reward is wonderful, and I would have to be wallowing in self-pity not to want to walk down to this beach. One afternoon there, when the temperatures were in the high 30s each day, hovering between 37 and 39 into the afternoon, I started reading Janet Soskice’s Sisters of Sinai. This is her account of Scottish twin sisters who lived in Cambridge and their discovery of an early copy of the Four Gospels in Saint Catherine’s Monastery in Mount Sinai.
This is an historical work by the Professor of Philosophical Theology at Cambridge. But she writes with the pace of a first-class novelist, and the book is full of people and places I know and delight in – from Cambridge to Greece, Turkey and the Middle East, and there are even people I have met, including Father Justin, who once welcomed me to the Library in Saint Catherine’s Monastery on Mount Sinai.
I could have sat there all day on Lost Paradise, reading this book. But I was also tempted constantly to take breaks to swim in the clean, clear, aquamarine water, with sand beneath that seems to stretch for miles out into the sea.
These three Paradises have been gifts to me. They have given me glimpses of God’s promises to me. If I have enjoyed them so much, I have been so appreciative of the gifts God gives me in his creation, if I have felt so welcome in God’s enclosure, if I have had a foretaste of the promises of Paradise, then I can only describe them for you in inadequate snapshots, in words that cannot give you the experience, but only give you a glimpse, a taste of ‘things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat.’
Lord Jesus Christ,
you spoke in love to the thief
who asked to be remembered in your kingdom;
Speak the words of eternal life
to all who are sincerely penitent,
with the assurance of being with you in Paradise,
for your mercy’s sake. Amen.
(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is priest-in-charge, the Rathkeale and Kilnaughtin Group of Parishes. This is the second of seven reflections on ‘the Seven Last Words’ on Good Friday, 19 April 2019, in Saint Mary’s Church, Askeaton, Co Limerick.