[April 29, 2016]
What was it like for the Good Thief, after Jesus died? He was left alone on his cross in terrible pain, and the one he put all his hopes in was gone, unmistakably dead. Jesus had not come into his kingdom after all.
No matter how bleak your faith has become at times, it can’t have been worse than that.
I expect we all love the Good Thief. His name is not certain; Russians call him St. Rakh, and to the Copts (and in the West) he is St. Dimas.
At first, it seems, he joined the other thief in mocking Christ:
“And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Matt. 27:39-44).
“Those who were crucified with him also reviled him” (Mark 15:32).
But then he had a change of heart:
“One of the criminals who was hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’
But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’
And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’
And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise’” (Luke 23 39:43).
(This icon shows Christ meeting the Good Thief at the door of Paradise, where an angel with a flaming sword had stood since the Fall of Adam and Eve.)
Something changed the heart of the Good Thief, and he put all his desperate hopes on Jesus. He probably didn’t have a very clear idea, theologically, of what was going on at that moment. He wouldn’t have been able to explain the doctrine of the Trinity. He certainly would not have understood that Jesus was dying for our salvation, and would rise again. He thought that maybe Jesus really was some sort of king, and that some dramatic, supernatural event was going to take place. When it happened, and Jesus was freed from his cross and revealed as king, the Good Thief wanted to be with him.
His faith couldn’t have been very accurate or mature; but it was still enough to be saved. The Good Thief had repentance, and he had humility. He knew his own abject need. That was enough to make up for his theological imprecision. So he cast all his hopes on Christ
—and then Christ died. And he was all alone.
Whatever he had expected, in that glow of newfound faith, it wasn’t that Jesus would simply die. The soldiers came and broke his legs, to hasten death. He wouldn’t be able to hoist himself up to catch a breath, and suffocation would soon set in. They broke the legs of the Bad Thief as well. But when the soldiers saw that Jesus was already dead, they didn’t break his legs. One of them pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and the Good Thief saw that Jesus was unresponsive; the soldiers could have done anything with that body. Jesus was truly dead. Blood and water flowed from the pierced pericardium, further evidence that this was now a corpse.
What thoughts went through the Good Thief’s head, in his final moments? He hung there beside Christ’s ruined body. There would be no miraculous rescue after all.
No matter how bleak a state your faith might decline to, it can’t have been as miserable as the Good Thief’s thoughts were at that moment.
And yet, minutes later, he was flooded with light and joy. He saw his Lord again, face to face, in Paradise.
When we hear a story about a terrible death, we think: it gets worse and worse and then you DIE. But what actually happens, to those who love the Lord, is this: it gets worse and worse, and then you SEE THE LORD. It gets worse, unbearably worse, and then suddenly it’s over. Suddenly, all the darkness vanishes. All the pain is gone. You are flooded with joy and light. Suddenly you are with Jesus in Paradise.
If your faith is weak, if you have even mocked God, if you doubt whether the Lord would really be with you if you were bound for a terrible death, remember the Good Thief. Your situation can’t have been worse than his. It turned out that he didn’t really need very much to be saved. He didn’t need a theological education, or even a clear idea of who Jesus was. He just needed to cast all his hopes on him. That was enough. And he was with Christ in Paradise that day.
Here’s a beautiful Catholic prayer to the Good Thief:
Glorious St. Dimas, you alone of all the great penitent saints were directly canonized by Christ himself; you were assured of a place in heaven with him “this day” because of the sincere confession of your sins to him in the tribunal of Calvary and your true sorrow for them as you hung beside him in that open confessional.
You who by the direct sword thrust of your love and repentance did open the heart of Jesus in mercy and forgiveness even before the centurion’s spear tore it asunder; you whose face was closer to that of Jesus in his last agony, to offer him a word of comfort, closer even than that of his beloved Mother, Mary; you who knew so well how to pray, teach me the words to say to him to gain pardon and the grace of perseverance; and you who are so close to him now in heaven, as you were during his last moments on earth, pray to him for me that I shall never again desert him, but that at the close of my life I may hear from him the words he addressed to you: “This day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”