Passover and Easter remind us that this is a time to revisit good stories, even ones that grow out of times and events that might make them seem more pipe dream than reality.
This story of redemption is about Dismas who after caught stealing was declared a criminal and sentenced by an imperial government to be crucified, along with another thief and with a third man, Jesus, whose only offense was being declared the messiah by his followers. Dismas, tied to a cross was lamenting his fate, while the second thief took out his anger on Jesus. He scorned Jesus as someone reputed to be a powerful person, someone who could change circumstances with a word or a simple gesture, like restoring sight to a blind man by applying mud to his eyes. “Are you not the messiah? Save yourself and us,” he taunted Jesus.
That led to a thunderclap of awareness for Dismas who saw the situation for what it really was. Jesus remained silent and peaceful in the face of a punishment. This world doesn’t always deliver what a person deserves. And if Dismas and his fellow sufferer resented what was happening to them, their fate came about because of things they had actually done. Jesus, on the other hand, who was innocent, had every right to be sad, angry, and brokenhearted, but he wasn’t.
What transpired on that day comes to us through a physician named Luke and the community that gathered around him and preserved their oral tradition in stories of what they observed. Because of their accounts, we can glimpse and guess at what the man Dismas saw that day through tear-stained eyes. He had this one last chance to see his own life reflected in the aura of a person who bravely faced ingratitude and suspicion in measures Dismas realized he had never faced head on.
It put Dismas’ own God-forsaken world and life into a miraculous new perspective. Looking towards the dying man, he saw something luckier people had seen and called love. A longing stirred within him that his larcenous self could never have stolen or taken by force. He saw life. He saw a possibility that is greater than one can ever fully understand: a life beyond life. And he knew he wanted to be wherever the man dying gently was going. He trusted (maybe for the first time in his life) that Jesus would lead him and would welcome him when he arrived. Even if it meant venturing into a reality he had never imagined, he would follow.
And so we are told by the members of Luke’s community that these were Dismas’ last words: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
And in what I guess was the surprise of his life, Dismas heard this answer: “Amen I say to you, this day you will be with me in Paradise.”
I try to believe enough to love. But on that day on a hill whose name means the Place of the Skull, a man we know only as Dismas turned that instinct on its head. Love came first and belief followed. St. Dismas, help us believe in happy endings.
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