It is right and proper that analysis and reflection on the events prior to, including, and after the Crucifixion should be Christ-centred. That said, throughout Christian history there have been those who in their fervent desire to focus on Jesus Christ have neglected that which gives His earthly life, ministry, death, and resurrection deeper meaning. If we permit our faith to become myopic, we lose sight of that which enables us to appreciate human frailty, as well as that which is demanded of the true believer. It may suit some to downplay the significance of the Virgin Mary, or question what we can learn from the signs of perturbation in Pontius Pilate. There have been many who have delibrately chosen to ignore the significance of the Penitent Thief precisely because the Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church view him as a saint. To those Protestant theologians, pastors and believers who have severe misgivings over the status and role of saints this provides reason enough to avert their gaze and indeed their scholarship. I would urge those who engage in Christology to ensure that they endeavour to view matters holistically.
I recently came across the poem below that had featured in The Irish Monthly in the mid-1920s. These were the early years of the Irish Free State, a time of struggle and turmoil, of change, and the earnest desire for a nascent nation to forge its identity. The Penitent Thief to our knowledge lived and died in a land eager to free itself of an imperial power, there were those who advocated a violent struggle. Some historians and theologians have put forward the notion that Dismas had been sentenced to be crucified along with his co-criminal Gestas because they were insurgents, possibly Zealots. Once sentenced, scourged and afixed to a cross Dismas found himself, supposedly to the right of Jesus of Nazareth, one who in three short years had caused considerable excitement because of his teachings. Was the Nazerene a liberator, one sent to set the Jewish people free, if so where were his armies? All that Dismas knew and had heard of this man convinced him that Jesus did not deserve to die. Dismas was astonished at Jesus’s conduct on the Cross; after all the Nazarene had endured, he still asked forgiveness for his tormentors and those there to gloat and delight in his suffering.
The Gospel of Luke provides us with the evidence of the verbal interaction between Jesus and the man some have dubbed the Good Thief. Dismas rebukes his co-criminal, acknowledges his own guilt, whilst also stating that Jesus had done nothing wrong. In his moment of self-realisation Dismas does not ask to be saved, in humility he merely asks that when Jesus attains his kingdom that he be remembered. Jesus’s response is so extraordinary that they continue to give hope.
To some Dismas was the Penitent Thief, although he was never actually penitent, to others he is a saint, although he was never canonised in the normal way. He remains a figure who inspires works of art, of poetry, and of reflection. There is a radiance to Dismas that can help illuminate our journey of faith, as well as our understanding.
The Penitent Thief
In that bright place
Among the Seraphim, _
Where beat the wings
Of countless Cherubim
Around the Throne
Of Him, Whom thou- sin-tired thou –
Though broken and alone
With thorn-crown Brow _
For Sovereign Lord- for mighty King of Kings
Pray thou for those,
Who, to their grief and bitter woe,
Counted, as thou didst once, amongst His foes.
But now, his Mercy seek.
Dear radiant Saint!
Oh, pray – He speak
As once to thee, _
Through His sweet grace,
When time slips by,
And they must faint
“This day –
(Oh pray – on, pray)
“Shalt thou in Paradise abide with Me.”
Esmonde, Eily. “The Penitent Thief.” The Irish Monthly, vol. 52, no. 616, 1924, pp. 536–536. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20517491. Accessed 12 Jan. 2021.
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