Sometimes when you read the Scripture or hear it at Mass, do you ever wonder about some of the characters’ back-stories, or what happened after the Gospels? What happened to the woman at the well? What was the man born blind’s life like before he met Jesus? Who were the two thieves crucified with Jesus, and what did they do? Our curiosity wants to know more!
The same was true of the early Christians. They heard the stories of the Gospels and wanted to learn more, so to satisfy their curiosity, authors would write legends or stories about the characters of the Bible, almost like early Church comic books. Some of these, like the Gospel of Thomas, were written by people who had an obvious agenda contrary to the authentic teaching of the Church, but others, like the Acts of Pontius Pilate, also called the Gospel of Nicodemus, are, for the most part, harmless expansions and stories. Elements of them have become parts of our larger Tradition, and have inspired beautiful artwork and even film, as seen in the Passion of the Christ movie by Mel Gibson.
That’s where St. Dysmas (or St. Dismas, if you want) comes in. According to the Gospel of Nicodemus, “Dysmas” was the name of the repentant thief who died at the side of Christ on Good Friday. It’s from that document that we also receive the name of the bad thief (Gestus), and the name of the soldier who drove his lance through Jesus’ side (St. Longinus).
Really, not much is known about St. Dismas. St. John Chrysostom cites the tradition that he lived in the desert as a robber or bandit. Pope St. Gregory the Great wrote that “he was guilty of blood, even his brother’s blood.” Who knows? All we truly know about him for certain is what we read in the Gospel of Luke:
Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.’ The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, ‘Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.’ Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ He replied to him, ‘Amen I say to you today you will be with me in Paradise.’
There’s a lot we can learn from St. Dismas, especially during Lent, as we repent of our sins and grow closer to Christ. This short conversation gives us the three steps to authentic conversion: 1) Awareness and acceptance of responsibility for our personal sins, 2) repentance of that sin and trying to the best of our abilities to turn away from it and avoid it in the future, 3) acceptance of Jesus’ promise of eternal life. It also gives us three of the big steps for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, as we speak aloud our sins (confession), pray an act of repentance (contrition) and receive God’s forgiveness through the priest (absolution).
This week, as we celebrate the Commemoration of St. Dismas (March 25), let’s ask for his prayers to help us leave behind our weaknesses and sins and grow closer to Christ, even as we join him on the Cross!