Monday, 25 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (41): Saint Dismas, the Penitent Thief, 25 March

Christ brings Saint Dismas into Paradise … at the right are the Gates of Paradise, guarded by a seraph (Solovetsky Monastery, 17th century)

Parick Comerford


The Penitent Thief, also known as the Thief on the Cross or the Good Thief, is an unnamed character mentioned in the Gospel according to Saint Luke who is crucified alongside Christ and who – unlike his companion, the unrepentant thief – asks Christ to remember him in his kingdom.

The Penitent Thief is traditionally known as Saint Dismas or Dusmas, although he is known in Spanish as Dimas, in the Coptic Orthodox tradition as Demas, and in the Russian Orthodox tradition as Rach. The unrepentant thief, also unnamed in the Gospels, is traditionally called Gestas.

The four Gospels tells us that the two men were crucified alongside Christ, one on his right hand and one on his left (Matthew 27: 38; Mark 15: 27-28; Luke 23: 33; John 19: 18). Saint Mark interprets this as a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah 53: 12. According to Saint Matthew, both of the thieves mocked Christ (Matthew 27: 44).

Saint Luke alone tells us that one of the two thieves was repentant:

39 Εἷς δὲ τῶν κρεμασθέντων κακούργων ἐβλασφήμει αὐτὸν λέγων, Οὐχὶσὺ εἶ ὁ Χριστός; σῶσον σεαυτὸν καὶ ἡμᾶς. 40 ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἕτερος ἐπιτιμῶν αὐτῷ ἔφη, Οὐδὲ φοβῇ σὺ τὸνθεόν, ὅτι ἐν τῷ αὐτῷ κρίματι εἶ; 41 καὶ ἡμεῖς μὲν δικαίως, ἄξια γὰρ ὧν ἐπράξαμεν ἀπολαμβάνομεν: οὗτοςδὲ οὐδὲν ἄτοπον ἔπραξεν. 42 καὶ ἔλεγεν, Ἰησοῦ, μνήσθητί μου ὅταν ἔλθῃς εἰς τὴν βασιλείαν σου. 43 Καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμήν σοι λέγω, σήμερον μετ' ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ.

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’ (Luke 23: 39-43).

The phrase translated “today... in Paradise” in verse 43 (“Καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ, Ἀμήν σοι λέγω, σήμερον μετ' ἐμοῦ ἔσῃ ἐν τῷ παραδείσῳ”) is disputed in a minority of versions and commentaries. The Greek manuscripts have no punctuation, so the attribution of the adverb “today” to the verb “be,” as “be in paradise today” (the majority view), or the verb “say,” as “today I say” (the minority view), depends on an analysis of the word order conventions in Koine Greek.

According to tradition, the Good Thief was crucified on Christ’s right and the other thief was crucified on his left. Because of this, many depictions of the crucifixion show Christ’s head inclined to his right, showing his acceptance of the Good Thief. According to Saint John Chrysostom, the thief lived in the desert and robbed or murdered anyone who crossed his path. According to Pope Saint Gregory the Great, he “was guilty of blood, even his brother’s blood.”

The thief’s conversion is sometimes given as an example of the necessary steps towards salvation through Christ: awareness of personal sin, repentance of sin, acceptance of Christ and salvation’s promise of eternal life.

Only Saint Luke’s Gospel describes one of the thieves as penitent, and even that Gospel does not name him. The name Dismas may be derived from a Greek word meaning “sunset” or “death.”

Apocryphal writings suggest that Dismas was a member of a band of thieves that set upon the Holy Family during the flight into Egypt. Moved with pity for Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Dismas is said to have made his companions retreat, allowing the Holy Family to continue on their way unharmed.

Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria (385-412) wrote a Homily on the Crucifixion and the Good Thief.

In Orthodox icons and in mediaeval art, Saint Dismas is sometimes shown accompanying Christ in the Harrowing of Hell (see I Peter 3: 19-20).

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, one of the hymns used during Matins on Good Friday, ‘The Good Thief,’ speaks of how Christ granted Dismas Paradise.

In Cecil B. Demille’s movie The King of Kings (1927), after Christ and the Good Thief have died, the Virgin Mary is mourning at the foot of her Son’s cross when she notices at the foot of the thief’s cross a disheveled old woman crying for him. The old woman says: “He was my son.” The two mothers embrace and console each other.

The thief also is the narrator in Sydney Carter’s controversial song ‘Friday Morning’ (1960), in which he cries out:

It was on a Friday morning that they took me from my cell
And I saw they had a carpenter to crucify as well.
You can blame it on to Pilate, you can blame it on the Jews,
You can blame it on the Devil, it’s God I accuse.
It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.

Chorus:

“It’s God they ought to crucify, instead of you and me,”
I said to the carpenter a-hanging on the tree.


You can blame it on to Adam, you can blame it on to Eve,
you can blame it on the apple, but that I can’t believe.
It was God that made the Devil, the woman and the man,

and there wouldn’t be an apple, if it wasn’t in the plan.
Now Barabbas was a killer, and they let Barabbas go.
But you are being crucified for nothing here below.
But God is up in heaven, and he doesn’t do a thing,
with a million angels watching, and they never move a wing.

“To hell with Jehovah,” to the carpenter I said.
“I wish that a carpenter had made this world instead.
Goodbye and good luck to you. Our way will soon divide.
Remember me in heaven, the man you hung beside.”

Enoch Powell and the Daily Express called for the poem to be banned. But the critics at the time missed the point in the last line, where the thief actually comes to faith in the God he blames

In his obituary of Sydney Carter (1915-2004) in The Guardian (17 March 2004), Canon Paul Oestreicher, Anglican priest and former BBC producer, says the song “leads to the deepest of all questions: is God in Auschwitz or the Twin Towers, the killer or the victim?” Paul recalls having to fight the BBC management to get that song on the air, with the support of a “brave, liberal head of religious broadcasting was my ally.”

Sydney Carter said ‘Friday Morning’ was a song for Good Friday or the Feast of the Innocents – a song “about the crucifixion of the innocent and of the guilty too,” which “contemplates, celebrates ... the Atonement.”

From the Orthodox Service of the Hours:

O Master, Lord Jesus Christ our God,
You have led us to the present hour,
in which as you hung upon the life-giving Three,
You made a way into Paradise
for the penitent thief,
and by death destroyed death:

Cleanse us, Your unworthy servants,
for we fall into sin continuously and
are not worth to lift up our eyes and
look upon the heights of heaven.
Forgive us for departing from the path of righteousness
and following the desires of our own hearts.

— From the Prayers of the Ninth Hour

As a criminal, Saint Dismas has been held up as a great practitioner of penance. He has been adopted as a patron of prisoners. On this day in Holy Week, we should also remember in our prayers those prisoners who are on death row.

Tomorrow (26 March): Harriet Monsell, Founder of the Community of Saint John the Baptist, 1883.