For those that have looked at my Heroes and Sheroes page, you might recognize that today is a special day for me. March 25th is the traditional commemoration date of Saint Dismas on a number of Christian liturgical calendars, and I bear his name.
Widely known as the “Good Thief” or the “Penitent Thief”, Dismas was crucified beside Jesus. The name Dismas was later adapted from a Greek word meaning “sunset” or “death.” His real name is unknown. Most likely, he was not a thief, but instead, some kind of rebel or raider deserving the death penalty under Roman law.
Dismas’ lesser feast day or commemoration derived from a tradition believing that March 25th was the actual calendar date of Christ’s crucifixion, although the Passover and Easter celebrations move due to their following a lunar calendar. The Feast of the Annunciation is the primary, modern celebration on our Lutheran calendars today (except when March 25th falls during Holy Week), but I still stop to remember St. Dismas annually on this day.
Although Dismas was never officially canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, he is declared so in scripture by Jesus himself. We hear in Luke that Dismas defended Jesus from the abuse of the other condemned man, commonly named Gestas (but also unknown). Hearing Jesus preach, teach and pray from the cross, Dismas began to look to Jesus with trust. He asked, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus declared, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (See Luke 23:39-43)
Years ago in a home with many challenges, I came to see the world in black and white terms. I secretly believed myself unlovable and defective even at a young age. As I write elsewhere, I am sure I heard the story of Dismas often in church growing up, but it first really impacted me while watching The Greatest Story Ever Told on television with my father in about eighth grade. At that time, I had been going through confirmation classes at St. Pius X Roman Catholic Church. Prior to confirmation (viewd as a sacrament in the Roman Catholic faith tradition), we were asked to think of a confirmation name, one to symbolize our coming to adulthood in faith and hopefully be a saint who inspired us.
In the Roman Catholic tradition, St. Dismas is the patron saint of condemned prisoners, reformed thieves, undertakers, funeral directors, penitent sinners, and prisoners. Indeed, some Lutheran and other prison ministries are named after him. When confirmed in the Catholic tradition, I decided to take his name. This seems ironic perhaps for one who would become a police officer, yet I always remembered how my heart was deeply touched by his story. In the depths of my being, I hoped I could be so loved.
Later as a young adult, I left active life in the church. I believed in God at some level, but I made bad choices at times, experienced losses that often come with life, and experienced much too much evil as a police officer. In short, I gave up on God. I became empty and cynical. I came to feel that not even Christ’s cross was enough to save me. I had much to repent over, for I was very wrong.
Yet when my life seemed darkest after another profound loss, two dear Christian friends from my past redirected my gaze toward the cross and its certain grace. On March 7, 1992, I had what I call my “re-conversion experience” – for I understand now that since my baptism and before, God has always been active in my life. My faith was small and deformed, but it made a difference in my life. God loved me before I ever realized it, even on Christ’s cross long ago. I truly experienced amazing grace, and my life changed.
Through this renewed experience with grace, I came to understand and more importantly finally trust that I was indeed loved and forgiven. I began to dig into scripture as never before. I hungered for the Word of life, and I found it alive in and through Christ’s church. With the church, I sought to share the grace I knew to be true with others in both word and deed. My police work became a sacred vocation. Later, God would invite me to take his love on the road through mission. Overtime, I discovered a home in the Lutheran family of faith. Still a sinner, I trust that I am also a saint. Christ declares this through his death and resurrection for our sake, and I do trust him for he never lies. His sacrifice atoned for our sin – past, present and future. His death remains enough to save us all.
Each year since my “re-conversion” and return to the church, I think of Dismas and rejoice. I celebrate the opportunities found in Lent and Christ’s forgiveness. I trust that with others who believe (and even those who don’t yet) I was, am and will be remembered. Dismas’ story is our own.
Yes, Jesus remembered us all as he died on that cross. He died, so that we could truly live…starting today.
Psalm 32 – The Joy of Forgiveness
1 Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
2 Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit.
3 While I kept silence, my body wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.
5 Then I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not hide my iniquity;
I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord’,
and you forgave the guilt of my sin.
6 Therefore let all who are faithful
offer prayer to you;
at a time of distress, the rush of mighty waters
shall not reach them.
7 You are a hiding-place for me;
you preserve me from trouble;
you surround me with glad cries of deliverance.
8 I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
9 Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you.
10 Many are the torments of the wicked,
but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.
11 Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous,
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.
Gracious Lord, even as you died on your cross, you looked upon Dismas and saw our human need, shared suffering, and sin. You looked upon him with love before his repentence. His simple trust in you opened a way of communion with your heart’s mercy and forgiveness even as the centurion’s spear sought to tear your heart asunder. Your death and resurrection saves me. His trust in you inspires me. Bless your entire church; that together we remember your cross with confidence, persevere in faith through times of trial, and experience the resurrection of our lives today. Empower us to remember and serve the outcast, sinner, and all who suffer; sharing your grace, mercy and love, as you have so abundantly shared it with us. Amen.[i]
[i] This prayer is inspired by a Roman Catholic prayer.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scripture quotations for this article are from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) translation.
© 2013 The Rev. Louis Florio. All content not held under another’s copyright may not be used without permission of the author.