Yesterday was Passion Sunday, so you’ll already have a pretty good idea of what to expect: Red vestments, a “pre-Gospel” during the processional, the blessing of palm branches, and a dramatic reading of the entire Passion story. This year, it was be Mark’s version, which includes an account of the insults our crucified Lord endured and this telling detail: “Those who were crucified with him also kept abusing him.”
Mark is referring here to the two rebel convicts that were executed on Good Friday, but this is in contrast with St. Luke’s description of a “good thief” who did the exact opposite. “We have been condemned justly,” he tells his unrepentant counterpart, “but this man has done nothing criminal.” Apparently, the good thief had a change of heart as he hung there so close to our dying Savoir, and he gasps an implicit plea for mercy: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23.42).
“Amen, I say to you,” Jesus replies, “today you will be with me in Paradise.” The Church has interpreted the Savior’s words as an affirmation of the good thief’s ultimate heavenly destination, and he has long been regarded as a saint. Although St. Luke doesn’t name him, tradition settled on the moniker “Dismas,” which derives from the Greek word for “sunset” and “death.” Eastern Christians commemorate him on Good Friday every year, but Catholics remember Dismas on March 25 – the day we normally celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation.
It’s a curious liturgical overlap, you might think – a penitent criminal and the Mother of God – but tradition helps sort it out for us. In the Middle Ages, many conjectured that the actual crucifixion took place on the very same date as the Annunciation – that is, the day we annually mark the Incarnation, the beginning of our salvation that God hinged to Mary’s fiat, and its ultimate accomplishment on the Cross providentially align on our calendar. Consequently, although our celebrations of Holy Week and the Easter Triduum shift every year, the commemoration of the dying Dismas’s sanctifying confession became associated with March 25 and Mary’s pivotal acquiescence.
This year, that date coincides with Passion Sunday, which results in an especially rich confluence of images. It’s the day we embark on a solemn liturgical journey with Jesus, from hosannas and acclamation to ignominy, torture, and execution – and, ultimately, Resurrection. March 25th is also the day that, at least in terms of human gestation, marks the hidden embodiment of the Savior in Mary’s womb. Death and new life; horrific end and new beginnings; calamity and tremendous hope – it all comes together on this day.
And it’s the day that we traditionally call to mind Dismas, a figure whose Gospel appearance is itself a summary – this rotten sinner who deserves to die and yet who surrenders himself to the One who is Life himself. Doesn’t that describe you and me? Dismas is us, in a sense, and we could ask for no better friend to accompany us this week as we trudge through tragedy to triumph.
If you have the chance, you might want to visit Sacred Heart Basilica at Notre Dame. In the reliquary chapel off the main sanctuary, you can venerate the relics of St. Dismas, including with a small splinter from his cross. While there, you can also venerate a piece of the True Cross of Christ in a church so closely identified with Our Lady and her monumental “yes.”
St. Dismas, pray for us. Our Lady of the Assumption, pray for us. Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us.
This meditation originally appeared in the Sunday bulletin of St. Joseph Parish, Mishawaka, Indiana.