I knew Mark was a heroin addict when I hired him. He eventually went the way of most of the addicts that worked for me, he just disappeared one day with some of my tools and an advance. I hadn’t heard from him in months. The next time he called he was dying of complications of AIDS. “I need to talk to you,” he said, his voice a hoarse whisper.
Mark lay in his bed, too weak to sit up. He was a child in the body of a twenty one year old man that looked eighty. His quest for self destruction was nearly complete. It hadn’t taken him nearly as long as some others I knew.
He talked. He told me about his family, the beatings by his father, the conspiracy of silence, the times he sought protection and comfort from his mother only to be pushed away. He told of his early years, how he started drinking and using drugs in the eighth grade. He told about robbing pharmacies, he would just walk in, jump over the counter and grab bottles and run. He told about robbing appliance stores. He would throw a garbage can through a display window and grab TV’s or stereos and run before the police could arrive. He told about all the people he ripped off, the friends he used, the checks he forged,some of them were mine, the drugs he stole from other addicts, the beatings he gave and took, the shoplifting and breaking and entering. He never got caught.
He told about how, when he needed a fix and needles were not available, he would shoplift the needles used to inflate basketballs and file them down to a point on the concrete. He eventually got AIDS sharing his needles.
I listened. He got quiet. There was a long silence while he stared at the ceiling. I was about to break the growing uncomfortable pause when he said, “There’s something else.” I sat and waited. I waited a long time.
He finally sighed and began. “I was drunk one night. Real drunk. And I was driving home. I don’t even remember where I was or when it happened. But I hit him. I hit this dude walking across the street. All of a sudden he was just there in front of me and “WHAM”. And I got scared. Real scared. And I drove off. I remember going to a fifty cent car wash and washing blood and vomit off the front of my car and off the windshield. I got sick and puked. I went home and stayed inside and drunk for a week. They never caught me. It was after that that I started using heroin.” He looked at me.
“I killed a guy. I killed him.” He looked back at the ceiling, breathing hard.
I waited again. Mark finally looked back at me. “Can I go to heaven, Steve?”
“You believe Jesus can forgive you, don’t you Mark?”
“I guess I don’t have much of a choice at this point, do I?” he halfway grinned.
“I guess not.” I halfway grinned back.
“So, will I go?”
“I don’t see why not.”
He closed his eyesand sighed and his whole body went slack, like a stretched rubber band that was released.
“Thanks,” he whispered.
“Don’t thank me,” I said.
“I wasn’t,” he said.
One of the liturgical traditions that has fallen out of use is the singing of the Beatitudes before the small entrance of the Divine Liturgy. Some Churches still sing the Beatitudes but the hymns between the Beatitude verses are not done. That is unfortunate because every Sunday the Octoechos has 6 short hymns whose themes revolve around the sin of Adam plunging the world into futility, our sinfulness, the Incarnation of God taking our fallen nature upon Himself, the scene of the crucifixion and each verse ends with the cry of the Thief on the Cross “Remember me O Lord when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom”. The placement of these hymns and the themes are not accidental nor incidental. The Beatitudes remind us of the character of those who are blessed with the Kingdom and the verses remind us of our hopelessness and the only hope we have as we approach the Altar and the gift of the Body and Blood of Christ. In six short verses the entirety of the Gospel is outlined for us.
If we listen, we know we are St. Dismas, the thief on the cross. We know we are all “Mark”, fallen human beings, beaten by life, crippled by sin, making our way through life wrestling with overwhelming passions and attachments to things we know are killing us and those we love. We may not be sharpening basketball needles on the sidewalk or stealing drugs, but we compromise and rationalize, we justify and many times we just plain DO things that we know are sin just because we want to.
We’ve maybe not hit and run, but we’ve all killed our brother with a glance or stolen their reputations with slander and gossip, as the Fathers say. We’ve not been poor in spirit, but proud and haughty, we’ve not been meek but sought power and control, we’ve not been peacemakers, but have been irritable and irritating, defensive and argumentative, we’ve not been merciful but judgmental and condemning. In short, we have hung ourselves on a cross fashioned from our fleshly desires and find ourselves looking into the face of our God who is crucified for our sakes. What do we say? What CAN we say?
I squeezed Mark’s hand and gave him a hug and left him lying in his bed to die. As I was driving home I thought of the thief who hung next to a man beaten beyond recognition and yet recognized something in Him that was a hope beyond his wildest dreams. He had nothing to lose by asking, given the situation, he didn’t have many options left, really. He took the chance of his life.
“You the Son of God?” he asks.
“You bet your life I am.”
“Wow! Today’s my lucky day. When you get there, put in a good word for me, OK?”
“You got it.”
“Don’t mention it.”
Sure the thief staked his life on it, but it was not much of a life at that point. He was pretty well used up, beaten up and dumped on the trash heap of humanity. Human trash hanging on a cross outside the city, worthless to anyone for anything. Except God. So he offered up his last and only gift, his last ditch hope against hope that this other hopeless case next to him was who He claimed to be and His word was good. And He was, and His word was.
I’ve always wished I could hear Mark after he died. I imagine him grabbing the first person he saw in heaven.
“Hey, you wouldn’t believe what just happened to me of all people…..”
“Yeah, I would. You see, I was a thief and one day…..”