Updated: Apr 20, 2019
Christ’s final moments were spent with the ones he so deeply loved. The Son of God was nailed to a cross between two hardened criminals. One criminal hurled insults at Christ, but the other rebuked the insults and gave us the clearest picture of the gospel of grace in the whole book.
The penitent thief admitted his unworthiness and made a bold request, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It’s a simple yet profound request. His words recognized the sovereignty of Christ and the free gift of grace.
Christ responded with the words we all long to hear, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” The friend of sinners responded to the condemned man with compassion and mercy.
From this beautiful scene the penitent criminal became one of the most venerated saints in the Early Church. The Catholic Church gave the thief the name St. Dismas.
The prayer to St. Dismas reads,
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;
you who knew so well how to pray, teach me the words to say to Him to gain pardon and the grace of perseverance;
and you who are so close to Him now in Heaven, as you were during His last moments on earth, pray to Him for me that I shall never again desert Him, but that at the close of my life I may hear from Him the words He addressed to you: “This day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.”
St. Dismas captured the imagination of the Early Church. His life and death became a symbol of the radical forgiveness of Christ. In medieval Christian art, St. Dismas accompanies Jesus in the harrowing of hell (an event referred to in the Apostle’s Creed and held by some Christians that between Good Friday and Easter Jesus descended into hell to save the saints). In a mosaic at the Church of San Marco in Venice, the penitent criminal stands behind Christ, holding his cross, as Christ reaches down to save the saints from hell.
Jesus knows how to assemble a squad. Who wouldn’t want a hardened criminal by your side when you’re busting down the gates of hell?
St. Dismas goes from a lowly criminal condemned to death, to Christ’s right hand man. The ruthless criminal who was once despised and humiliated becomes celebrated and respected.
THE CHURCH AND THE CONDEMNED
Yet this Holy Week many of our churches have forgotten the condemned saints in our own communities. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 636,300 prisoners were released in 2014.
Reentering society after any period of incarceration is incredibly challenging. Prison Fellowship calls reentry the second prison. Upon release, men and women are met with broken relationships, lack of employment opportunities, the temptations of the past, and some come out with crippling debt. One friend told me that reentry was harder than incarceration itself. Several of his friends from prison committed suicide not long after release.
Recently released men and women look to church for mercy and support, but often they are met with distrust and even rejection. Many churches like the idea of reaching out to inmates in prison, but embracing them upon release is another story. Fear and self-preservation trump forgiveness and welcome. We have forgotten that Christ draws close to the criminal, a truth that I am reminded of each week in the county jail.
A STORY OF REDEMPTION
Among the many stories of rejection that I hear from former inmates, I also hear stories of redemption. One former inmate, John had robbed a bank in a moment of desperation years ago. He was arrested and spent several years in prison for his crimes. In prison he met the Gideons, a Christian organization focused on distributing Bibles. Through his relationship with the Gideons, John renewed his faith in God. His heart began to break with penitence for the things he had done. He grew in faith and upon release he began visiting churches with the Gideons and sharing his story.
One Sunday, John visited a church with the Gideons in the community where he had robbed the bank. He shared his story with the congregation and asked for their forgiveness. After church in the greeting line, he was met with a long line of warm embraces. One woman hugged him tight and said to him, “I was a teller in the bank that day. I forgive you.” John can hardly tell the story without tearing up. He knew at that moment the truth that St. Dismas knew; he knew that the actions of his past no longer defined him, but that Christ and the Church offer him mercy and welcome.
This holy week, as we remember the final days of Christ’s earthly life, let us also remember the condemned who Christ so desperately loves, and may we imitate Christ who accepts the most despised among us with grace and love.