Dear Saint Dismas,
You are known as “The Good Thief.” And to many people, you are considered a saint, especially after what you did and what you said on the cross as you were crucified alongside Jesus on that first Good Friday. The name that legend has given to you, Dismas, comes from the Greek word, dusme, which means “sunset” or “death.” As often happens in the Gospels, your presence (as well as your name) is an illustration of irony, of which the Gospels are replete with: appearances greatly differ from the reality. You who were a thief became good and your name, while denoting a loss, points out what actually happened with you: you got to see a new sunrise and a new life, thanks to that last minute leap of faith and the never-ending generosity of an always loving God.
The other “thief” who was crucified along with you—who legend has it was named Gestas—mocked Jesus by taunting Him by saying that if He was the Messiah, to basically come down from the cross and “save” them, thus showing once and for all—to all—His glory and majesty. In turn, you rebuked Gestas by saying, “Have you no fear of God at all? You got the same sentence as he did, but it our case we deserved it, but this man has done nothing wrong.” And then, in what was surely one of the most famous—and memorable—phrases ever uttered in the Gospels, you said: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It was then that Jesus inclined His head toward you and lovingly said, “Indeed, I promise you, you will be with me in Paradise.” And with that act—and Jesus’ promise—you became in effect, what many consider as Christianity’s first saint.
Many centuries have passed since that day and yet in that one moment a penitential request summed up everything Jesus came onto this Earth to do: He called people to Him and literally offered them Paradise and He used you as His instrument to illustrate that fact and more importantly, that desire. When you think of it, you, Saint Dismas—whether you realized it or not at the time—you represented us on that cross. You, with your shattered humanity and your sinful past, uttered our deepest wish to be redeemed from our imperfections and our often “grievous” faults. While we do not know exactly what it was that brought you to be crucified on that cross at exactly that moment or what your life—your “past”—was like, we know for certain from the Gospel accounts that you were there and you said what you said.
Of all the people present on that day, three in particular are noteworthy and provide in sharp contrast the different reactions to Jesus and what He offered in those days of that Holy Week. They were Peter, Judas, and you, Dismas. Each of you had a relationship with Jesus; except in your case, it came at the last moment. Peter and Judas were there from the very beginning, but at the end they were both blinded by their own perceptions: Peter, the hard-headed but well-meaning disciple, could not stand by his original loyalty and betrayed Jesus by claiming he did not know Him not once, but three times, a betrayal accompanied by the cock’s crow and Judas, for forever unknowable reasons, betrayed Jesus by handing Him over to be ultimately crucified. And yet, the reactions of the men—including you, Dismas—were radically different and very profound. Peter, after the cock crowed, remembered Jesus’ prediction of his denial and, seized with regret, broke down and wept, immediately repentant of what he had done. Judas, when he came to the realization of his actions, was dismayed and distraught, and in an act of not believing himself forgivable, threw away the thirty pieces of silver and went off and hanged himself, convinced there was no hope for him. And then there was you, Dismas, when you turned toward Jesus, becoming the first recipient—among many—of coming to understand what God’s love and mercy really meant.
No one can know what that day must have been like; we only know that the suffering was great but—more importantly for us—so was goodness, which was even greater. Even when you were hanging on that cross, you came to the realization that there are good people who suffer and who are punished for no good reason and you saw that in Jesus, too, who was good and was punished (though for reasons that would only be ultimately understood until much later) and yet, even then, He saw another opportunity for good in forgiving those who did Him harm and extended to a “good thief”—you—a Paradise you could never have dreamed of: Heaven.
Your request and Jesus’ response present a very poignant moment on a very dark day. When all seemed lost and hopeless, that hill on Calvary presented something otherwise, which is why we call it “Good Friday.” Because of your actions on that afternoon, Saint Dismas, you showed that nothing is impossible or unobtainable and that Jesus, even in His suffering, was more than eager to show that. In doing what you did, and saying what you said, you showed everyone that in the darkest of moments, there is hope to be grasped and how badly we need it, in spite of who we are and whatever it is we have done; that it is possible to find our way out of the darkness and into the light, if only we are willing to recognize that. And you, the “thief,” in one last act, “stole” that opportunity for us, which resonates so much, even now.
In Roman Martyrology, you are remembered on March 25th. Towns are named after you, particularly in California. And there are the churches in Ontario, Canada, Waukegan, Illinois, Coseley, England, and Dannemora, New York. And appropriately, those churches in Canada and New York were built for—and in some cases, by—convicts. Your fame is far and wide, and appropriately so. You are also remembered in art and legend—and there is one affecting legend that cannot fail to move a conscience, and that is the story of the two women who were present as the foot of the cross on that day. One woman was your mother, who was standing beneath your cross; the other was Mary, who was standing beneath the cross of her son, Jesus. Both are grieving the death of their sons and when they see each other, they sorrowfully embrace.
But it is in terms of our faith that you are rightfully remembered. There is a prayer to you that says in part: “Glorious Saint Dismas, you alone of all the great Penitent Saints were directly canonized by Christ Himself; you were assured of a place in Heaven with Him “this day” because of the sincere confession of your sins to Him in the tribunal of Calvary and your true sorrow for them as you hung beside Him in that open confessional; you who by the direct sword thrust of your love and repentance did open the Heart of Jesus in mercy and forgiveness even before the centurion’s spear tore it asunder; you whose face was closer to that of Jesus in His last agony, to offer Him a word of comfort, closer even than that of His Beloved Mother Mary…” And the prayer closes—obviously—with the wish that someday, we, too, hear those words of Jesus that you heard on that day and that we all will have a share in that Paradise that Jesus offers us.
When you were crucified, the sign that was put atop your cross read: Erat Latro (He Was a Thief). What happened to you, Saint Dismas, is something worth pondering and meditating on in these Triduum days. On Friday, we will hear your words again and marvel, as the prayer says, at what your requested in that “open confessional” from Jesus. And come Easter Sunday, we will all rejoice at what came forth from that.