By Moina Arcee, May 27, 2013 Edited July 5 2018
Rome ruled Israel when Jesus lived there, but robbers ruled the land. They nestled in the rugged hills, patrolled the roads, and inflicted robbery and mayhem upon hapless travelers. Herod’s quick rise to power was due to his father, but the son’s ruthlessness in dealing with robbers was another definite asset.
Dismas was a robber who eluded Herod for years until he was caught and crucified next to Christ. Tradition has it that Dismas’ father was a robber chief, and the apple fell not far from the tree. Whether Dismas ever considered a different way of life is unknown, but upon reaching adulthood he became more infamous than his father.
Dismas lived in the desert and preyed upon anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. The thousands of deaths attributed to Dismas is probably hyperbole, but it is undisputed that Dismas was a murderer. According to St. Gregory the Great, Dismas “was guilty of blood, even his brother’s blood.” Dismas, whose name in Greek means “sunset” or “death,” spent his life sinking to ever lower depths of corruption and wickedness.
The one recorded good deed before this hardened criminal’s crucifixion also occurred in the desert. Dismas and his men accosted a family traveling across the desert. It was like many other robberies except for two things. Unlike most travelers who carried supplies of food and money, this family had almost nothing of material value. This was because the husband, Joseph, had obeyed the Angel’s message to leave for Egypt so promptly that he and Mary left most of their possessions in Nazareth. Had they any money they could have avoided the desert and traveled to a port with boats for hire. Instead they made for Egypt overland, exchanging the pursuit of Herod for the pursuit of wild animals and murderous men.
Even without robbers it was a brutal journey. The travelers were not spared from hunger, thirst, and fatigue. In one of her visions, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich saw the Holy Family “exhausted and helpless.” Mary was most upset because she had so little to feed her child.
It was in these circumstances that – according to St. Augustine, St. Peter Damian, and other Church Fathers – the Holy Family met Dismas. That the Holy Family ran into robbers in the desert is not recorded in Scripture, but given the times they lived in, such an event may be regarded as inevitable rather than unusual.
This brings us to the second unusual part of this robbery: the infant Jesus. As the story goes, the robbers searched the Holy Family in hopes of plunder, and came across a real treasure. Something about the infant stopped Dismas dead in his tracks. Not only did he stop looking for plunder, he bade his comrades do the same.
Stories about the desert robbery of the Holy Family vary in the details. Sister Emmerich saw the robbers taking the Holy Family back to their cave and feeding them. Other versions omit this. What all agree on is the effect the (perhaps nine month old) baby Jesus had on Dismas. When the Holy Family departed, their meager possessions intact, Dismas, according to St. Augustine, said to Jesus, “O most blessed of children, if ever a time should come when I should crave Thy Mercy, remember me and forget not what has passed this day.”
It is unlikely Dismas recognized the infant Jesus as the Messiah, for he was not a Jew. Several authors, including St. John Damascene, say Dismas was Egyptian. If so, he was most likely a pagan when he met the Holy Family. His encounter with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, however edifying it was for Dismas at the time, did not move him to change professions. He remained a robber and a murderer until finally he was caught, perhaps around the age of fifty.
The verdict of crucifixion confirms that Dismas was a notorious criminal. Crucifixion (a word derived from crux, or cross) was an excruciating and humiliating death penalty reserved for the gravest crimes. One of the reasons the Jews clamored for Christ to be crucified was their assumption that such an ignoble death would overshadow the Messiah’s life of miracles for the afflicted and admonitions for the comfortable.
Crucifixion was a process that included scourging and public cross carrying. While Dismas and his fellow thief, Gestas, were spared the brutality meted out to Christ, it is likely they were also scourged and made to carry their crosses to the place of their impending death. So they set off under the weight of their doom, cursing their captors, their fate, and any gods within earshot. They probably arrived at Calvary before Christ, and waited as their fellow criminal made His tortuous way of the Cross.
Then all three were fastened to crosses and raised on high for all to see and revile. Dismas’ and Gestas’ violence against the innocent was at last avenged. As the two hung there with no one to mourn their passing, they saw a group mourning the crucified Christ. In despair, impotent rage, or perhaps force of habit, Gestas turned against another Innocent. Dismas joined him in the mockery, according to St. Mark: “They that were crucified with him reviled him” (Mark 15:32); and St. Matthew: “The thieves also, that were crucified with him, reproached him (Matthew 27:44).”
It is hard to breathe when you are being crucified. Gestas’ final recorded words were hurled through choked breath like a curse: “If thou be the Christ, save Thyself and us! (Luke 23:39)” His words were not an act of faith, but the spittle of mockery. Then came the miracle. Dismas, hanging on the other side of the Savior, turned on his fellow thief:
“Neither dost thou fear God, seeing thou art under the same condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done no evil. (Luke 23: 40-41)”
These are some of the most unlikely words ever recorded. Dismas was hanging next to a Man whose body was horribly broken, on the verge of death; too weak to even curse his tormenters; a fellow criminal able only to rouse himself occasionally to utter words that, though uttered in a clear voice, were difficult to comprehend. Yet Dismas’ change of heart came after Christ painfully raised Himself up on the nails transfixing him, and spoke to the Father of Mercies: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
After these words Dismas rebuked Gestas, then turned to Christ and said, “Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom (Luke 23: 42).” Saint Leo remarks:
“Whence has Dismas received his faith? Who has explained the mysterious doctrine? What preacher has inflamed him? For he now confesses, as his Lord and King, One who seems to be no more than his fellow sufferer!”
It is divine grace that removed the scales from Dismas’ eyes, inspired him to proclaim the Christ, and dare to ask to enter His Kingdom. This most generous of Kingly gifts, eternal life, was swiftly bestowed by the Dying upon a most miserable sinner with the words: “Amen, I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.”
What was the agent of this grace? Some Fathers have speculated that the prayers of the Virgin Mary to spare Dismas because of his kindness to the Holy Family. Others say Christ Himself repaid Dismas, remembering the thief’s plea: “If ever a time should come when I should crave Thy Mercy, remember me and forget not what has passed this day.”
Still others, like St. Vincent Ferrer, claim the shadow of Christ’s body touched Dismas, and that this, like the healing shadow of St. Peter, effected his conversion. Whatever the instrument, Dismas was transformed into a firmer apostle than the men who had for years seen Christ perform miracles, drive out devils, and confound the evil. They had fled, leaving Dismas to proclaim Christ as the Son of God, even as He lay dying on the Cross.
It is this faith that warranted Dismas’ speedy entrance into heaven. Church Fathers agree that from the moment of his death Dismas enjoyed the Beatific Vision uninterrupted. A number of Fathers even believe that Dismas was the first of the saints to enter Heaven. Such an end should give courage to the weary, hope to the sinners – that is, all of us – and fervor to ask St. Dismas to intercede for us so that we may persevere until death with as lively a faith, hope, and charity as he acquired in the last moments of his life. Truly has it been said:
“Suddenly, from being an enemy, he became a friend; a stranger, he became a loving companion; coming from afar, he showed himself the true neighbor; a robber, he was changed into a glorious confessor. Great, indeed was the confidence of the thief. Conscious to himself of every sort of guilt and sin, without a single redeeming good work, he had passed his lawless life in taking the goods and even the lives of men; yet, at the end of his days, at the very gates of death, when all hopes of this present life were over, he conceived a hope of the life to come, which he had so grievously forfeited, or rather which he had never done anything to deserve. If the thief had cause to hope, who shall henceforth despair?”
Msgr. Gaume, Life of the Good Thief, republished by Loreto Publications, 2003.
The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, From the Visions of Ven. Anne Catherine Emmerich, TAN Books And Publishers, Inc., 1970.