25th March – A day for dual reflection

The Christian Calendar is no stranger to analysis and debate, not least least because different churches and demoninations have often used it to asert and consolidate their identity. Some churches have made a point of asserting their otherness, something which to a point should be a matter of some regret. Whilst there is nothing wrong per se in marking certain feast days at different times, or in some cases not at all, such contrasts serve to remind us of the division that dogs Christianity.

It might come of a surprise to discover that in England prior to the English Reformation under the Tudors was a land of the most extraordinary devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Many English men and women took pride in England’s status as Mary’s Dowry and the Kingdom of England had a wealth of Marian shrines, chief amongst them being the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. Centuries of Marian devotion was to be rudely and violently interrupted by a dramatic change brought about because of an English monarch’s need for a male heir. Essentially, the Ecclesistical Reformation in England was the result of political expediency, and the nefarious activities of some who used an all-out assault on the Roman Catholic Church to solve a number of pressing political and economic factors, whilst also enriching themselves. It was only at a later stage that doctrinal and liturgical changes were introduced and enforced often to the bewilderment and resentment of ordinary Christian believers in England.

In some churches whilst there is considerably less emphasis on the Virgin Mary and often little time for the intercessory role of saints, there is still something that we can learn from the example of Jesus’s mother and that of the person often known as Dismas or the Penitent Thief. At a deeply human level we can empathise with a mother about to witness the brutal execution of her son. Here is a woman of humble origins, who witnesses senior religious figures such as some from the Sanhedrin eager to see her son put to death. We all should be able to relate to her situation. Having seen the degradation of Jesus and those who taunted Him, how might she have felt when one of the two criminals either side of Jesus spoke up in his defence? Jesus of Nazareth had always made a point of seeking out those that society rejected and reviled, and thus it is indeed fitting that one who allegedly had led a life of sin found it within himself to publicly acknowledge Jesus’s innocence. All Christians should recognise the signs and symbols, a saintly mother, and an avowed sinner; innocence and guilt; and good and evil.

The Annunciation – Fra Angelico (circa 1438-1450), Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy

25th March is a date of special significance when the Feast of the Annunciation which commemorates the visitation of the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary to inform her that she was with child and was going to give birth to Jesus Christ, the Son of God. On the same date St. Dismas is commemorated, which means that his feast day coincides with one of the most significant days in the church calendar. Whilst it is a great honour to be associated with the Virgin Mary, it is perfectly understandable that the Penitent Thief is largely overlooked. To have one’s feast day eclipsed by the Virgin Mary should not mean that we think any the less of Dismas, although in truth, even in the churches where his feast day is celebrated there are clergy and laity who often feel that they have but a superficial understanding of him and his significance. We appreciate that the Virgin Mary has a series of unique roles, firstly as the mother of Jesus Christ, and secondly as a blessed compass, one who points the way to Salvation. Dismas even when suffering on the Cross finds it within himself to acknowledge the innocence of Jesus, he also has the humility to ask to be remembered when Jesus attains his royal status, by so doing he publicly acknowledges his belief that Jesus is indeed the Messiah, the one who as the Son of God conquerors death. It is thus fitting that both the Virgin Mary and St. Dismas provide reasons for dual reflection during Lent and the lead up to Easter.

The Penitent Thief as part of a Calvary dating from 1860 in the Catholic Cemetery, Fót, Hungary

The following might prove of interest: The Centre for Marian Studies

Both illustrations are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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