March 25, 2021: THE GOOD THIEF
March 25, 2021: COMMEMORATION OF THE GOOD THIEF, PENITENT, CONFESSOR
“And we indeed justly, for we receive
the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done no evil. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.”
(St. Luke, xxiii. 41-43)
Attend, O Lord, to the humble prayers we present to thee on the solemnity of the blessed Thief, thy Confessor; that we, who have no confidence in our own righteousness, may have the help of his prayers, who was so pleasing to thee. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
According to St. Luke, Ch. xxiii. 32-35,39-43.
And there were also two other malefactors led with him to be put to death. And when they were come to the place which is called Calvary, they crucified him there; and the robbers, one on the right hand, and the other on the left. Jesus said: Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. But they dividing his garments, cast lots. And the soldiers also mocked him, coming to him, and offering him vinegar, And saying: if thou be the king of the Jews, save thyself. And there was also a superscription written over him in letters of Greek, and Latin, and Hebrew: THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS. And the people stood beholding, and the rulers with them derided him, saying: He saved others, let him save himself, if he be Christ, the elect of God. And one of those robbers who were hanged, blasphemed him, saying: If thou be Christ, save thyself, and us. But the other answering, rebuked him, saying: 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. And he said to Jesus: Lord, remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom. And Jesus said to him: Amen I say to thee, this day thou shalt be with me in paradise.
Introduction: On March 25, the Church celebrates the Annunciation of Mary and the Incarnation of the Son of God. March 25, however, is also listed as the feast day of the Good Thief crucified with Jesus. This feast date was assigned because, by tradition, Jesus died on March 25 (The 1st Good Friday), the anniversary of His Incarnation.
The Good Thief, from the cross as from a pulpit, spoke in defence of the cause of Christ, and confessed his divinity at the very moment when it was blasphemed by the other thief and by the multitude of the Jews. Turning a reverential and a suppliant countenance towards the sorrowful and wounded Face of Jesus: “Lord,” he said, “remember me when thou shalt come into thy kingdom.” His prayer is granted at that very moment. The Face of the Lord inclines itself towards him and his lips utter those ineffable words which ensure to this model of reparatory souls, as a supreme recompense, the immediate vision of his glorious Face: “Amen I say to thee, this day, thou shalt be with me in Paradise.”
The fathers of the Church are inexhaustible in their praise of the good thief. Saint John Chrysostom, when meditating upon his faith, raises it above that of Abraham, of Moses and of Isaiah, saying: “They saw Christ upon the throne and in the bosom of his glory and they believed; he sees him in the midst of torments, and he adores him as though he were in glory; he sees him on his cross, and he prays to him as though he were seated in the highest heavens; he sees a criminal, and he invokes a king...” According to the same father, the good thief became at once an «evangelist» and a «prophet» ; he preaches the Divine Crucified, he announces his eternal kingdom.
Tradition knows him under the name of Dysmas/Dismas/Dimas. The Roman martyrology inscribes him amongst the Saints of the 25th of March, and the Breviary, in the «Proper particular to some places», assigns him an office and indicates his feast as that of a double of the 24th of April.
The conversion of Dismas was much more extraordinary because while the Apostles and other disciples witnessed Jesus’ miracles and saw Him at His greatest, Dismas saw no miracles, but rather saw Jesus at His weakest and most humanly shameful, yet still recognized His divinity. Below is what the Tradition speaks on the Life of the Good Thief, taken from the French of Monsignor Gaume, Protonatory Apostolic (Done into English by M. De Lisle, 1882).
Life of the Good Thief in the Tradition.
(The First Good Friday, March 25th)
The Robbers of Judea.
Among all the nations of antiquity, highway robbery, we find, was reckoned as a capital offence. In the penal code of the Romans its punishment was crucifixion, at once the cruellest and the most shameful of deaths: “the reason of which,” according to St. Gregory of Nyssen, was this—“that the robbers thus banded together did not shrink from murder as a means to their end. They even held themselves in readiness to do it (as was proved) by their choice of arms, supplies, and places of resort. Hence it was that they were subjected to the penalty thereof.”
The banditti of those times behaved pretty much in the same way as do their modern successors in such countries as are unhappily still infested by this scourge of society. They lived chiefly among the mountains, dwelling in caves, prowling about armed to the teeth, or lying in ambush near the highways, attacking the passers-by, robbing and stripping and wounding them, and often leaving them half dead. Well, indeed, for them if they were not killed outright. For proof of this deplorable state of things having existed in Judea at the time of our Lord, we have only to open the Gospel. We find it there in the parable of the man who went down from Jerusalem to Jericho [Parable of The Good Samaritan]. Nor is this the only place where robbers are spoken of in the sacred text. In the history of the Passion we find mention of Barabbas, a robber and a murderer. And again we read that two robbers suffered death together with the Son of God.
Some may wonder that the Gospel, usually so sparing of details, should make such frequent allusion to this class of evil-doers. It may appear surprising that our Lord should take, as the subject of one of his most beautiful parables, the incident of a man falling into their hands. But if we look into history, whether sacred or profane, the reason of this is quickly to be found. In Josephus and others we read that at this time, and until after the destruction of Jerusalem, the Holy Land was completely overrun with brigands. If, on the other hand, we consult the Holy Gospels, we see that our blessed Lord and Teacher was in the habit of adapting His lessons to the capacity of His hearers, and exemplifying His doctrines by reference to those things with which they were most familiar. Hence it was natural, if we may so speak, that, in a country infested by robbers, He should make use of such a parable as that of the Good Samaritan. […]
Traditions concerning the Good Thief.
The Massacre of the Innocents was about to take place. Hundreds of these little victims were destined to perish that One Child might not escape. But God laughs to scorn the counsels of evil men, and vainly shall the kings rage against Him and against His Anointed. Herod gained nothing by his wholesale barbarity save the curses of posterity; for “being warned in sleep by an angel, Joseph took the Child and His mother by night, and fled with them into Egypt.” (St. Matth, ii. 11-14)
[…] Tradition is unanimous on the subject of this journey. Its faithful mouthpiece, Christian art, always represents the flight as taking place overland, St. Joseph leading an ass on which is seated the Virgin Mother, holding her child in her arms. Another tradition, which is found in Oriental documents as old as the third century, tells us that the Holy Family did not escape the common peril, but fell into the hands of brigands. This incident had so much influence on the life of the Good Thief, St. Dimas, that, before relating it, it may be as well to give what proof we have of its authenticity.
That the Holy Family should have been surprised by robbers during the flight into Egypt has, in itself, nothing incredible. On the contrary, the historic details given above serve to show that it was probable, nay, almost inevitable. It is true that no mention is made of the event in the Holy Gospels; but this silence of the sacred writers is no proof that it did not take place. The New Testament is far from recording every incident of our Saviour’s life. St. John tells us that if all these things were written, the world would not be able to contain all the books so produced (St. John, xxi. 25). There are even most important points left unnoticed, such, for instance, as the substitution of the Sunday for the Jewish Sabbath, and the validity of baptism by infusion. But when the Holy Scriptures are silent, the voice of tradition makes itself heard. From the very earliest times this tradition was taken down in writing. We learn from St. Luke that even in his day much had already been written (St. Luke, i. 1). Nor is this surprising, when we consider the multitudes that flocked to Palestine from every part of the known world for the sake of seeing and hearing the Son of God, and being cured of their infirmities. Man has an inborn love of the marvellous, and we cannot suppose that these pilgrims, on their return home, were silent concerning the wonders they had seen and heard; they doubtless published them abroad, by writing as well as by word of mouth. Thus we can easily account for the origin of the many versions of our Lord’s life to which the Evangelist refers.
These first writings have unfortunately all perished, but much of their matter may be found in documents still extant, which, at comparatively early date, were widely circulated both in East and West. Many of these, it must be confessed, were written with more piety than wisdom. Others, again, were composed by heretics, who tainted them with an admixture of their own special errors. None of them were really composed by those whose names they bear. Hence the Church, in her unerring wisdom, has not suffered them to be incorporated in the sacred canon. Yet although declaring these writings apocryphal, the Church has never pronounced them to be altogether false. Much good grain is there, though not unmixed with chaff. There is one test by which they are easily sifted—the question whether or not they are in conformity with the authorized versions. When the details they suggest are not contrary to the teaching of the Church, to Faith, or to sound reason, but rather appear probable, from their being in keeping with ancient usages and customs, they may safely be considered as a sort of supplementary tradition, which neither has been, nor can be, condemned.
The Church herself has not disdained to make use of these writings in her controversies with her rebellious children. One of them—the famous letter to Abgarus—although declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius, was referred to in the following terms by St. Gregory II., when writing to the iconoclastic emperor, Leo the Isaurian: “When Christ was in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, Abgarus, who was at that time King of Edessa, having heard of the fame of His miracles, wrote to Him, and received in answer a letter written by the Lord himself, together with a portrait of His sacred and most glorious countenance. Send, therefore, and go thyself, and behold this likeness not made with hands. Thither do the multitudes of the East draw nigh and pray.” (Epist. i., and deon. Isaur.)
And later on, another Pope, Adrian I., in recounting to Charlemagne what passed at the council held at Rome, in the year 709, says: “Our predecessor, the Lord Stephen, of holy memory, who as Pope presided over the said Council, brought forward much true testimony, which he himself confirmed, teaching also that we must not omit or disregard those things which have been made known to us by the faithful of the East. That they should not be mentioned in the Holy Gospel is noway surprising, for does not the Evangelist himself say, ‘Many other things did Jesus which are not written in this book?’ Wherefore we may receive their witness, that as the time of the Passion was approaching, the Saviour of mankind wrote a letter to Abgarus, King of Edessa, who had written to him expressing his desire to see Him and to provide Him with an abode, where He should be safe from the persecution of the Jews.” Then follows the letter, given in full.
We must observe that these letters of St. Gregory and of Pope Adrian were official documents addressed to princes, one of whom was the avowed foe of holy images. Can we suppose that Popes would have brought forward such writings as the letter of Abgarus, and our Lord’s answer to it, as evidence in favour of the veneration of images, unless they carried great weight in the eyes of all?
Certain modern Catholic critics are too much inclined to despise all the apocryphal writings. They might profitably learn a lesson on this subject from the great Anglican writers. Pearson, among others, has a passage upon the letter to Abgarus, as cited by Eusebius, wherein he fully accepts the tradition handed down. His comments do as much honour to his fairness and impartiality, as to his learning.
[…] Of these apocryphal writings it is only necessary for our purpose to single out two. The one gives us a detailed account of the meeting of the Holy Family with the robbers of the desert. The other has preserved to us the names of the two thieves crucified on Calvary. The most ancient is called the “Gospel of the Holy Childhood,” which dates as far back as the end of the second century. It was first written in Syriac or Greek, and thence translated into the different languages of both East and West. It has been found in Egypt, among the Copts; in India, among the Christians of the coasts of Malabar; in Armenia, and even among the Mussulmen. In Europe, it has been widely circulated, many editions having been published in almost every language.
By whomsoever this Gospel may have been written, it contains facts about which there can be no doubt, such, for instance, as the Adoration of the Magi, and the reason of the Flight into Egypt. In the seventh chapter it is said, “This is what came to pass. When the Lord Jesus was born at Bethlehem, a town of Judea, in the reign of King Herod, wise men came from the land of the East,… and they brought with them presents, gold, incense, and myrrh, and they worshipped the Child, and offered Him their gifts.”
And in the ninth chapter: “Herod, seeing that the wise men returned not to him, began to consider in his mind how he should put the Lord Jesus to death. Then an angel appeared to Joseph in his sleep, and said to him, Arise, take the child and His mother, and fly with them into Egypt. And, at cock-crow, Joseph arose and fled.”
This Gospel also contains facts belonging to, what we may call, tradition of the second order. To this category belongs the following history. It is in the twenty-third chapter:—
“And, presently, they came to the entrance of the Desert. And, hearing that it was infested by robbers, they determined to cross it, during the night. But, suddenly, they perceived two robbers, who were lying near them, asleep, and round about were many other robbers, their associates, and they also were asleep.
“The names of these two robbers were Titus and Dumachus. The first said to the other, ‘I beg thee, let these travellers go in peace, lest our comrades discover them.’ And Dumachus refused. Whereon Titus said to him: ‘I beseech thee, accept of me, forty drachmas, and take my belt as security.’ And he, offering it, implored him not to call their comrades or give the alarm.
“Mary, seeing this robber so well inclined towards her, said to him, ‘May God uphold thee with His right hand, and grant thee the remission of thy sins.’
“And the Lord Jesus said to his mother, ‘In thirty years’ time, O my mother, the Jews will crucify Me, and these two robbers shall be crucified with Me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left, and behold, that day, Titus shall be with me in Paradise.’
“And when He had thus spoken, His mother answered Him, saying, ‘God forbid that such things should befall Thee.’ And they went on their way towards the city of idols.”
But, the most important of all the Apocryphal writings, is the Gospel of Nicodemus. Hardly a sentence of it, but what is reproduced by many of the early Fathers, such as St. Cyril of Jerusalem, St. Chrysostom, Firmicus Maternus, and St. Hippolytus, so that its general sense is unimpeachable. It has been much read in the West, where it was known from a very early period. In its present form it is attributed to the fourth or fifth century.
Gregory of Tours, Vincent of Beauvais, and many other writers of the Middle Ages, frequently quote this Gospel, without ever expressing any doubt as to its authenticity. Eusebius of Alexandria analysed, and wrote a commentary upon it, and showed no scruple in accepting its authority. At no very distant time, the Gospel of Nicodemus was regularly read in the Greek Church, not, it is true, as forming part of the sacred canon, but as being a work full of edification, written by a holy and venerable man. It is impossible to say how many editions it has gone through. They are innumerable.
Like the Gospel of the Holy Childhood, that of Nicodemus records, over and above those events of which the New Testament gives us Divine testimony, certain other incidents and details not mentioned by the Evangelists, in their brief narrative.
We will content ourselves with citing a single passage, which throws a light upon the subject of our history. It is from the tenth chapter:—
"And Jesus went forth from the Pretorium. And when He had reached the place called Golgotha, the soldiers took off, from Him, His own garment, and girded Him with a linen cloth, and put, upon His Head, a crown of thorns and a reed in His hands; and they crucified with Him two thieves, Dimas on His right hand, and Gestas on His left.”
There are numerous passages in the works of the Fathers in which mention is made both of the names of the two thieves and of their encounter with the Holy Family in the Desert. The good faith as well as the discrimination of these writers being established beyond doubt, it matters little whether their information was derived from the above-mentioned documents, or from others which have long since perished.
Among the published works of St. Augustine is a treatise, entitled De Vita Eremitica. Until lately it was attributed to the great Bishop of Hippo. We ourselves are more inclined to the opinion of the learned Père Raynaud, who believes it to have been written by St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. But, whoever the author, the work is undoubtedly old and of much weight. We quote it as confirming the tradition of which we have been speaking.
“Consider as true that tradition, which represents the Holy Family as falling into the hands of robbers and owing their deliverance to a young man who was the son of their chief. The legend is that, being on the point of rifling them, he suddenly caught sight of the Divine Infant, resting in His mother’s arms. He was struck with awe on beholding the glorious beauty and majesty of His countenance, and believed at once that He was something more than man, and burning with love, he embraced Him, saying: ‘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.’
“The same tradition goes on to say that this young man was the same as the thief, who was crucified on Christ’s right hand. And he, turning towards the Lord, recognized in Him the glorious Infant whose majesty he had seen long since, and, being mindful of his prayer, he said to Him: ‘Lord, remember me when Thou comest to thy kingdom.’
“This tradition is, I think, far from useless as an incentive to love of God, but it should be cited without too bold or positive affirmation.”
The learned Cardinal, St. Peter Damian, who died in the year 1072, attributed the conversion of the Good Thief to the prayers of the Blessed Virgin, who had recognized in him the young man who had protected her son in the Desert. I say protected, because not only had he prevented the Holy Family from being robbed by his comrades, but he had made them pass the night in his own dwelling, and the next day provided them with all that was necessary for their journey, the safety of which he insured by sending with them an armed escort.
It would take too long to enumerate all those writers, distinguished alike for learning and holiness, who, without doubt or hesitation, have become the exponents of this tradition. We will content ourselves, therefore, with the following brief quotations from a few of those best known:—
The blessed James of Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, thus mentions the legend in one of his sermons:—
“During their flight into Egypt the Holy Family fell into the hands of robbers. One of them, ravished by the beauty of the Child, said to his companions: ‘Verily I say to you that if it were possible for God to assume our nature I should believe this Child to be God.’ His companions were so much softened by these words that they allowed the Child and his mother to depart unhurt.”
The learned Bishop of Equilium, Peter de Natalibus, adds the following details:—“Not only did the young robber abstain from plundering the Child and his mother, but so touched was he by their beauty, that he begged of them to stay the night with him, he ministering unto them, and afterwards guarded them with an armed escort to the end of their journey.”
The great Landolphus of Saxony, in his admirable Life of Christ, also makes mention of this meeting with the robbers. It is, perhaps, unnecessary to give the quotation, as it is couched in almost exactly the same terms as that already cited from St. Anselm. (De Vita Eremitica, cited above.)
We may also name the pious and learned Padre Orilia, who, having carefully studied the question, accepts the tradition as beyond reasonable doubt. He says: “I might make a long list of the writers who give testimony to these things, but it seems to me superfluous.”
We must add that in the East this tradition is received without doubt or hesitation, by Greeks and Latins alike.
One word on the slight variations to be found in the different accounts. We do not think they are considerable enough in any way to invalidate the main points of the tradition. There is hardly a passage in history, whether sacred or profane, which has not been recorded by various writers in divers forms. It is, indeed, unavoidable that there should be slight variations, and even, sometimes, apparent contradictions, but, where these do not touch the essential parts of the event so recorded, even the severest criticism lets them pass.
We must not leave unnoticed a proof (of the moral order) furnished by the agreement of this tradition with what we so often find to be the working of the providence of God. His infinite knowledge includes all things, whether past, present, or to come, and His goodness knows no bounds. The Gospel tells us of many instances where meetings with our Lord were fruitful of grace and salvation. May we not suppose that the providence of God had more influence in bringing them about than a mere blind chance? It was not surely to accident that the Samaritan woman, Zaccheus, Matthew, and others owed their conversion, or the man possessed by the legion of devils, his cure. Blind, indeed, is he who does not see in these events the working of the providence of God—His mercy seeking out the sinner, whom Christ had come to save.
We therefore do not hesitate to impute the meeting in the Desert to the same divine cause, and to believe that He, Who has said: “I was a stranger and you took Me in,” and Who has promised that neither this, nor even a cup of cold water should go without its reward; that He, in His mercy, designed, through this meeting and the good deed it gave occasion for, to implant in the soul of the young robber a seed of grace, which should one day produce fruit of salvation. Thus we admire on Calvary a conversion prepared many years beforehand, and draw hence much comfort for such as seem to be hopelessly sunk in sin, and to have let pass the accepted time. Ay, there is hope for all, and the Day of Salvation may be at the door while yet we sorrow, thinking it afar off.
Name and Origin of the Good Thief.
We do not find in the Holy Gospel either the name or the origin of the Good Thief. His previous history, like that of many other Biblical characters, is shrouded in silence. But although the sun denies us his light, we are not altogether left in darkness. The perfect light of revelation may, to some extent, be replaced by what we may call the torchlight of tradition. When the one fails us, we must look to the other, whereby to guide our path. Let us, therefore, have recourse for information to the writings of the Fathers.
St. Chrysostom says, in speaking of what passed on Calvary: “The man to whom these words were spoken was a robber—one ignorant of the sublime truths of religion, knowing nothing of the prophecies, who had spent all his life in desert places, committing many murders, never hearing the Word of God, or being present at the reading of the Holy Scriptures.”
St. Augustine speaks in the same sense: “Until now, this robber had not known Christ. Had he known him, who can say but that he, who was the first to enter the Kingdom, might perchance have been ranked as not the least among the Apostles?”
Also Eusebius, who says: “Before this he had known neither religion nor Christ.”
Now it does not seem possible that a Jew, however abandoned and lawless, could be so wholly ignorant of the religion of his nation as never to have heard of the Law, or the Prophets, or the looked-for Messiah. Hence we conclude that the Good Thief must have been a pagan. This seems to be also the sentiment of St. Chrysostome, as may be gathered from the following passage:—
“There were crucified two thieves—types of Jews and Gentiles. The penitent thief is the type of the people gathered from the Gentiles, who, having walked in error, now accept the truth. But that other, who unto the end remains an unconverted thief, he is the type of the Jews. Until the time of the crucifixion they had walked together in the way of sin, but the cross has separated them thenceforth.”
It being proved from patristic evidence that the Good Thief was by birth a Gentile, there comes the question as to where he was born. We know that on all sides Palestine was surrounded by idolatrous nations—to which of them did he belong? Did he first see the light in the Desert, in a robber's cave, or in some town or village? To this question, tradition gives no clear answer. It has only preserved to us the memory of the place which was the chief scene of his misdeeds.
The following description is taken from the valuable work of the learned Quaresmus, Notary Apostolic for the Holy Land:—
“On leaving Rama, the pilgrims journey in an easterly direction towards the Holy City, which is distant about thirty miles. With the exception of the Valley of Rama, which is very beautiful and fertile, and extends about eight miles, the rest of the country is mountainous, rugged, and barren, very difficult of access. Ten miles beyond Rama—about half a mile from the main road—may be seen the ruins of a hamlet, situate on the summit of a hill. Formerly there was a fine church there, but there is very little of it now standing. This heap of ruins goes by the name of the ‘Village of the Good Thief.’ But it is by no means certain that the Good Thief was born here. Tradition only says that the ruined church was built in his honour.”
Thus wrote, in the seventeenth century, one of the most accurate historians of the Holy Land. We will now give the testimony of a distinguished cotemporary author, Mgr. Mislin, which proves once again that in the unchanging East nothing perishes, be it ruin or tradition:—
“After leaving Rama the road leads, for about two hours, over broken and stony ground, until it reaches the first pass of the mountains of Judea. There one comes upon a few tenanted huts, and above, situate on a hill, are the ruins of Latroun, said to have been the home of the Good Thief. It was destroyed by Saladin, as also the castles of Plans and Maí, after the destruction of Joppa, Rama, and Ascalon.
“These ruins, the aspect of which is in keeping with their reputation, were much more formidable a few years back than they are now. They served as a place of resort for brigands, who had inherited from the Good Thief the traditions of his life, if not of his repentance. Ibrahim put an end to their depredations and destroyed their stronghold, and, under his rule travellers were safe. But when the Pashas from Constantinople came back to their possessions, the brigands of Latroun and other places also returned to theirs, and are now established there in good force.”
Of what race was the Good Thief—Arab, Phoenician, or Syrian? The common opinion is that he was an Egyptian. Quaresmus says: “From the authors I have consulted it would appear that the Good Thief was an Egyptian, and consequently that he was born, not in Judea, but in Egypt, so that the village, which bears his name, cannot have been his birthplace. However this may be, it is certain that the inhabitants of this village had for him a special devotion, and raised a church in his honour.”
The learned Bishop of Equilium affirms the samething: “This robber was by birth an Egyptian, as we read in St. John Damascene. At the time of our Lord’s flight into Egypt, he and his associates lived by pillaging travellers.”
Padre Orilia, after examining the question, sums up in these words: “From the unanimous testimony of the above-mentioned writers, we may conclude, with moral certainty, that the Good Thief belonged to the Egyptian nation.”
If this be so, then must he have been sunk in the grossest idolatry the world had ever seen. He must have been a worshipper of all kinds of serpents, of the dragon of Meteli, of the ram of Mendez, of crocodiles, of cats, of oxen, and finally of leeks and onions—of everything, in a word, which is most vile and disgusting. Ah! let us measure, if we can, the distance between this abyss of degradation and the height of Calvary, and then we shall be able to understand the greatness of that miracle which, in the twinkling of an eye, changed this abandoned robber into a great saint.
We find no clue as to the name of the Good Thief in any writings anterior to the end of the second century. After that date the name generally given, both in East and West, is Dimas. In the Gospel of Nicodemus we find the following passage:—“Pilate ordered that the reason of his condemnation should be written on a board, in Hebrew, and Greek, and Latin characters: ‘This is the King of the Jews.’ And Gestas, one of the robbers who was crucified with Him, said to Jesus: ‘If Thou art the Christ deliver both Thyself and us.’ But Dimas, answering, rebuked him, saying: ‘Hast thou no fear of God, thou, who also art condemned.’ ”
In his Catalogue of Saints, Peter de Natalibus gives the same names. “About the time of our Lord's death, Dimas and another robber, Gestas by name, had been apprehended by the Jews on account of their crimes. These, likewise, were condemned to death.”
The learned Archbishop of Genoa, James of Voragine, when preaching to his people, speaks in these terms:—“The young robber, who persuaded his comrades to let the Holy Family go in peace, was named Dimas.” The great Spanish theologian, Salmeron, also adopts the names given in the Apocrypha. He says:—“The names of these robbers, according to Nicodemus, were Dimas and Gestas, two of the most famous brigands of their time,” etc.
In Italy we find the same name preserved. Masimo, in his Bologna Illustrata, writes that “St. Dimas, the Good Thief, is honoured in the Church of St. Vitalis and Agricola, where is preserved a portion of his cross.”
Quaresmus repeats the same tradition. He says:— “In the ancient martyrologies the Good Thief, whose memory is before God, is called Dimas. We find the same name in William Pipinus, Statione 7a Christi Patientis, and in Ravisius, Officinæ, t. i. tit De Cruce. They also teach that he was of the Egyptian nation.”
The celebrated Maurolyeo, the predecessor of Baronius, in the revision of the Martyrology, does not hesitate to insert in it the name of St. Dimas, and he is considered a great authority, and is quoted on this point by the Bollandists themselves without adverse comment.
We find the same name in the writings of Théophile Raynaud, Godefroy de Vendôme, Malonio, P. Orilia, Blessed Simon of Cassia, the learned Spanish theologian Sylveira, and many others.
In Baronius’ corrected version of the Roman Martyrology, we find for the 25th of March: “At Jerusalem—commemoration of the Good Thief, who confessed Christ on the Cross, and deserved to hear from Him those words: ‘This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.’ ” The Cardinal adds in a note, “He is generally called Dimas, but this name is not inserted in the Martyrology, doubtless because it is taken from the Apocryphal Gospels. Nevertheless, we find good number of churches dedicated to the Good Thief, under the invocation of this name.”
We must remember that this was written in the sixteenth century, when it was necessary to conciliate as much as possible the carping and fault-finding spirit of the times, and to give the Protestant critics nothing which they might legitimately take exception to. For this same reason, the name Dimas was suppressed when permission was given to certain of the religious orders to recite the Office of the Good Thief. This was done by Sixtus V. in favour of the Order of Mercy in the sixteenth century; by the Congregation of Rites in 1724, at the time of the founding of the Pii Operai (Congregation of Devout Workmen); and again when the same faculty was given to the canons regular of St. Gaetano.
The wise discretion of Rome on this point does not, in my opinion, in any way invalidate the tradition of which I have been speaking. It is true that it is founded on the Apocrypha, but every one admits that the Apocrypha contains much truth. The authorities we have already quoted prove this sufficiently. In this particular case the tradition has been adopted by almost all the ecclesiastical writers—“plerique,” to use the expression of Baronius—and besides it has been acted upon in Italy and elsewhere by the faithful, who have built numberless churches under the invocation of Saint Dimas.
It seems to me that to reject this name would be to accuse of imprudent hastiness all those venerable men who, century after century, have handed it down to us: therefore we shall always in this book make use of the name of Dimas, whenever we have occasion to speak of the glorious convert of Mount Calvary.
Moreover, a slight knowledge of the customs of the ancients shows us that the names of the two thieves must have been matter of public notoriety. In our time there is no public announcement of the names of criminals at the moment of their execution, nor yet any writing them up on placards or otherwise, yet everyone knows who they are. But in the old times there was, besides the trial, another, and more solemn, means of proclaiming them.
Now with the Jews, as with the Romans, the custom was that a herald should walk before the criminal on the way to execution, proclaiming his name the while, or else that it should be written in large letters on a board hung round his neck during the funereal procession, and afterwards placed on the gibbet, above the sufferer's head.
Thus it was with our Lord. As we read in the Gospel, His adorable name was written upon the cross in three languages. We do not know whether the board on which it was inscribed was fixed upon the cross in the Prætorium or only upon Calvary, in which latter case it must have been carried before Him all the way. However this may be, it was placed above His head at the time of the crucifixion. Many, perhaps, of those who were come up to Jerusalem for the Paschal Feast, thus learnt, for the first time, the name and rank of the august Victim.
In the same way, all Jerusalem, and the strangers there assembled, must have known with certainty the names of the two thieves, for what was done to our Lord was nowise exceptional. Let us listen to the testimony of the learned Justus Lipsius.
In speaking of death by crucifixion, he says:—“When the criminal was fastened to the cross the inscription was then put up. It set forth the crime of which the execution was the punishment. It was the custom to carry this inscription before the criminal or to make him carry it himself.”
This statement of Justus Lipsius is founded upon history, and may be applied to all forms of criminal execution. Suetonius tells us the following revolting anecdote about Caligula. “At Rome, during a public feast, a slave having dropped a plate of silver on one of the couches, Caligula at once commanded the executioner to cut off his hands, and to suspend them round his neck, hanging down on to his breast, and thus to lead him round the assembled guests, preceded by an inscription setting forth the cause of his punishment.”
[…] Tertullian makes mention of this custom as having been observed in regard to the Christians, whose sentences, he says, were their praise. St. Ambrose, in speaking of the martyrdom of St. Agnes, says: “The judge ordered that she should be taken to the Emperor, preceded by the herald making proclamation: ‘This is Agnes, a sacrilegious virgin, guilty of blasphemy against the gods, for which she is condemned to the Lupanar.’
Eusebius speaks of the same usage as being in force at Lyons, during the persecutions. When the glorious martyr, Altalus, was exposed in the amphitheatre, a placard was borne before him with the words, “This is Altalus, the Christian.” In other places the Christian's cause ran thus: “Imperatorum et deorum inimicus.” […]
The Good Thief's manner of life.
It is not possible to draw pure water from a poisoned source, neither can a tree produce good fruit if its root be withered. But, if such a phenomenon were to occur, we should call it a miracle. The same law obtains in the moral, as in the physical world. The proverb, “Like father, like son,” is true on the whole, and the cases in which it is not verified are exceptional.
In our inquiries into the life and condition of St. Dimas, our first question, therefore, concerns his father. The answer to this is to be found in the “Vita Eremitica,” the authority of which is undoubted, however much its authorship may be questioned.
Therein we find that the father of the Good Thief was a brigand chief. Among brigands the posts of command are held by those who are possessed of courage, coolness, strength, and cunning, together with sufficient cruelty and cupidity for the full indulgence of rapine and murder. In a word, a chief of brigands must be a sort of incarnation of wickedness.
Such must have been the father of Dimas, and the son was like him. Born probably in one of the caves of the Wilderness, he grew up and spent his life among robbers. St. Chrysostom says of him that he spent all his time in the Desert, and, in saying this, he is only, as it were, the mouthpiece of tradition. In the Desert, his only intercourse with his fellow men would be criminal in the last degree. His profession would force him to rob all who came in his way, and, in case of resistance, to murder them. Sometimes he would fight in self-defence; then, again, for purposes of revenge; and always he would have, as an incentive to fresh crimes, his ambition, which would urge him to rival, if not to surpass, his father, so as one day to succeed him as chief. Bad motives, therefore, were not wanting, nor yet the occasion for acting upon them. According to St. Ambrose, he made free use of both, and became guilty of the most atrocious crimes, for which at last he was put to death, after confessing his guilt. St. Leo and St. Chrysostom specify some of his crimes. They speak of robberies, housebreaking, and murders. St. Chrysostom ends up by saying that he was sunk in the lowest depths of corruption and wickedness.
To all this St. Gregory the Great adds the guilt of fratricide. “It is well,” he says, “to keep before our eyes the example of this thief, who from the lowest deep of sin ascends the cross, and thence enters Paradise. Let us consider what was his state on coming to the place of execution, and what, on leaving it. He comes guilty of blood, even his brother's blood; but on the cross he is changed, by the power of grace. And he, who killed his brother, now bears witness to the undying life of his expiring Lord, by the words: ‘Remember me, when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom.’ ”
St. Eulogius endorses the same accusation. He says: “What obstacle did it prove to the conversion of the thief in the Gospel, that he mounted the cross with hands stained by his brother's blood? Even in the throes of death was he not made illustrious by the most striking miracles? He who had spent his whole life in deeds of pillage and rapine—he, even he, in one instant of repentance, was not only cleansed from every stain of guilt, but was made worthy to accompany the Saviour, and thus to be the first to enter Paradise, according to the words of our Lord: ‘This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.’ ”
This last crime of fratricide speaks volumes. Of what was he not capable, who, trampling on the most sacred family ties, dared even slay his brother? We are not surprised that Eusebius, in speaking of this new Cain, should characterize him as a most atrocious criminal, covered all over with guilt.
The testimony of the Fathers is confirmed by the very sentence which Dimas underwent. Death by crucifixion was at once the most cruel and the most degrading of all punishments, and was reserved for the worst and most infamous crimes. Hence it was, as St. Chrysostom remarks, that the Jews chose to inflict this death upon our Lord, for the purpose of degrading Him and making Him in very truth “the most abject of men.” “For this death was not only the most painful but also the most shameful and infamous. Among the Jews, it was a malediction—to the Gentiles, abomination.” […]
Among the Romans no offence was considered more base or degrading than highway robbery. It reduced the offender to the level of a slave; and when caught, he was punished as such. Hence we find in their criminal code that brigands were to be crucified, and the execution to take place on the very scene of their crimes.
The learned Père Laury, summing up the criminal legislation of the ancients, says: “Crucifixion was the death reserved for slaves, brigands, murderers, and rebels. They were suspended on the cross, and there left to die of pain, hunger, and thirst. After death they became food for dogs and crows. So that among the Romans this was at once the most infamous and the cruellest of punishments.”
The revolution Christianity has worked in men's minds is indeed fitly symbolized by the Cross. Until sanctified and transfigured by the death upon it of the Son of God, nothing was more repulsive or more shameful; thenceforth, no sign more glorious, more sacred, or more dearly loved. We, at this day, can hardly appreciate the miraculous power required to work such a change. “We know the resistance it met with, and how it took three centuries of persecution and torrents of Christian blood to do away the ancient prejudice. When, therefore, the Cross was finally exalted, appearing in the heavens, and afterwards publicly honoured by the prince, who, in this sign, had won the empire of the world; we cannot be surprised at the rage and disgust shown by the proud patricians of Rome—and shown so openly, as to induce Constantine to transfer the seat of government. Strange mystery of the Providence of God, that this resistance to the power of the Cross should have furnished the very means by which its power was made most strong. One more example this, of what the apostle teaches: that “strength is made perfect in infirmity.”
Among the many ways of testifying their respect for the cross, the early Christian emperors used always to sign it on every decree, before writing their own name. Afterwards this came to be a general practice in signing documents of importance. The custom has survived, among the bishops of the Catholic Church, to the present day. Hence, also, those who cannot write still sign a cross, whenever they are called upon to witness the truth of any document. However ignorantly it may now be done, this was in its origin, and, in its nature, still is, a written act of Faith.
To return from this digression, I must observe that crucifixion was not only employed as a means of punishment, but also as a terrible and salutary lesson for the multitudes. This lesson was a lasting one, for, except among the Jews, the bodies were always left hanging upon the cross until they either fell to pieces or were devoured by the birds and beasts of prey. […]
Now it appears to us that we have said enough of the customs and criminal laws of the ancients to show that, both as a professional brigand and notorious malefactor, Dimas had necessarily incurred the penalty of crucifixion. He had, indeed, well deserved it, for he had grown old in wickedness! Having, according to the tradition, been a young man at the time of our Lord's flight into Egypt, he must, at the time of his death, have been about fifty or sixty years of age, some thirty or forty of which had been spent in robbing, pillaging, and murdering his fellow men.
Now at last the time had come for divine justice to put an end to his career. Through the instrument of human law many sins are punished, even in this world. And it is well that it should be so, for otherwise this earth would become a very slaughterhouse, where men would destroy each other like wild beasts.
True that many criminals escape altogether in this life, and that judgment is tardy, and that the just are astonished and confounded, continually crying out: “How long, O Lord, how long?” while the wicked, flourishing like the bay tree, reply: “There is no God!” But on the other hand there are many instances where the greatness of the punishment more than makes up for the delay in its infliction. This was the case with Dimas. Happily for him, justice proved to be but the forerunner of mercy.
Tradition does not tell us either the circumstances of his arrest or the spot where it took place. But it would appear that he and his companions were captured somewhere not far from Jericho, in which town they were tried and condemned. Thence they were sent up to Jerusalem—probably by order of Pilate—that they might be executed in the capital at a time, when the Paschal Feast should have brought together the largest concourse of people. This would have the double effect of making the usual spectacle of their sufferings, and of reassuring those who had so long been in fear and peril of their depredations.
In the meanwhile, it is hardly necessary to say that the two thieves must have been loaded with chains and immured in a dreadful prison. At Jerusalem the public prison joined on to the king's palace, which was close to the Prætorium. There it was that the criminals awaited the moment of execution.
We do not lightly use the word dreadful in speaking of a Roman prison. These prisons consisted of subterraneous dungeons, damp, dark, and noisome, with no opening save an iron door, which never, even for a moment, admitted either light or wholesome air. In them the unhappy sufferers were confined with their feet in a sort of stocks, and an iron hoop round their necks, by which they were chained to the wall. The tortures they must thus have endured, were scarcely less bitter than death. To have a correct idea of the horrors of these places it is only necessary to visit the Mamertine prison at Rome.
I have been speaking of Roman prisons, because it was in one of such that Dimas awaited his end; but what I have said of them applies equally to those of all the pagan nations, whether ancient or modern. To this day the prisons in Turkey, in China, in the kingdom of Annam, in the empire of Morocco, in fact, in all the non-Christian States, are still a reproach and a disgrace. The law of love alone has softened the terrors of justice and mitigated the horrors of imprisonment, for it alone admits that, after condemnation, there is still room for repentance.
We do not know how long Dimas was left in prison, and we can only imagine, more or less approximately, what he was there made to suffer.
Before continuing the history of the sufferings of the Good Thief, it may not be uninteresting to some of our readers for us to give a few details about the Roman practice of scourging.
It is well known that the Roman magistrates, whenever they appeared in public, were always preceded by lictors carrying their fasces. These fasces consisted of rods of poplar, ash, and willow, or vine, about a yard long, bound up together, with an axe protruding at the top. They signified the two forms of punishment usually inflicted on criminals—i.e., scourging and beheading—which the lictors were always prepared to inflict on the spot. The dignity of a Roman magistrate, and his rank, might be ascertained by counting the number of lictors who walked before him; thus, a consul had 12 lictors, a prætor 6, and a dictator 24.
The lictors served exclusively as attendants upon the magistrates. Their duties were twofold—first, to walk before the magistrates with their fasces, opening for them a way among the crowds. This they did in single file. Secondly, they had to scourge the criminals. When the judge had pronounced his sentence, he added the command to the lictors that they should carry it out. Here are the words used:—“I, lictor, adde plagas reo, et in eum lege age.” The lictors then seized the malefactor, bound and scourged him, and in certain cases put him to death. The name lictor comes from the verb ligare, to bind, as the first thing they did to the victim was to bind his hands and feet.
Scourging, however, was not always inflicted by means of the rods contained in the lictors' fasces. These were only one among five different instruments of torture. They were called by the Romans virgæ, and we find them preserved in the Russian knout, and the rattan of the Chinese.
Next there were the loræ, which consisted of strips of leather divided at the end, and sometimes weighted with lead.
Then there were the flagra and their diminutive, the flagella, whips made of several cords knotted at the ends. Varieties of this instrument were used by fathers in their families, masters in the schools, and also by the lictors when in court. Hence may be traced the practice of flagellation, which was in general use in France up to the end of the last century [18th], and which was still retained in the navy until a very recent time. In the army and navy of England, it has not yet been abolished.
The Fustes were knobbed sticks or cudgels. They were called scorpiones when the knobs were cut into sharp points, which tore and pierced the flesh of the victim. These were frequently used to torture the Christian martyrs.
And finally there were the nervi, thongs of cow-hide, which, also, were generally weighted with lead.
These different instruments of torture were not all used at the same time. Choice was made among them, according to the condition of the person condemned and the sentence of the magistrate. The least degrading were the virgæ, or rods. These might be made use of to punish a free man, but in no case was it permissible to scourge a Roman citizen; several laws, notably the Porcian and the Sempronian laws, expressly forbade it. [...]
The scourging here spoken of was the least ignominious, but that endured by our Divine Lord was the most shameful of all, and reserved for slaves, or those who, by their crimes, had forfeited all the rights of man. “He,” as Baronius well remarks, “having taken upon Himself the form of a slave, also deigned to suffer the flagellation set apart for slaves.” In this depth of self-abasement, we may find the measure of His love.
Among the Romans the number of stripes was unlimited. It was left to be determined by the magistrate, and too often by the insatiable cruelty of the executioners themselves. Their ungovernable fury was such, that frequently they killed their victim, even when he was not condemned to death, but was only ordered to be scourged for some trifling offence.
Not so, among the Jews. Their penal code was merciful, albeit severe, for it was inspired by Him, who is our Father, as well as Judge. We will quote the words of the text, for they show clearly the immense superiority even of the law of fear over the very best of merely human laws. “And, if they see that the offender be worthy of stripes they shall lay him down and shall cause him to be beaten before them. According to the measure of the sin, shall the measure, also, of the stripes be; yet, so that they exceed not the number of forty, lest thy brother depart shamefully torn from before thine eyes.” (Deuteronomy, xxv. 2-3) And the Jews were so careful not to transgress this merciful provision, that they always stopped short at the thirty-ninth stripe, as St. Paul bears witness: “Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes save one.” (II Corinthians, xi. 24)
Now, our Lord being condemned by Pilate, and not by the Jews, for whom it was no longer lawful to put any man to death, it follows that He must have been scourged according to the Roman method—that is, that He received an unlimited number of stripes. (According to the revelations made to St. Bridget, the number of these stripes mounted up to no less than 5,000)
The two thieves were condemned by the same authority, and consequently must have been scourged in the same barbarous manner, though not probably to the same extent. It is also supposed that there was a further distinction made between them and our Saviour, into which we shall enter at length in the following chapter.
The Scourging (continued).
According to the Roman usage, the scourging of a criminal took place either, before he was led to execution, or on the way thither […]. In the first case, it took place in the prison, or in the Prætorium, where judgment had just been given. After the sentence, as we have already seen, the judge added the command to the lictor, who immediately stripped the victim, tied his hands behind his back, and bound him hand and foot to a post or pillar. Then began the scourging, the horrors of which may be better imagined than described.
The same custom still prevails in the East, with this difference only, that the pillar is replaced by four stakes. How many times have our heroic missionaries undergone this fearful torment in China and Cochin China!
This practice of scourging in the Prætorium itself was the more ancient of the two; but, at the time of our Lord, it was not so usual as scourging on the way to execution. Nevertheless, it was employed in regard to our Saviour, as we read in the History of the Passion, for what reason we cannot say.
[The reason may perhaps, be found in Pilate's desire to release our Lord. He thought that the lesser torment of scourging would satisfy the bloodthirsty hate of those who, for envy, had delivered Him, and that then, they would let Him go. This interpretation tallies with the words of St. Luke, Ch. xxiii. 20-23: “And Pilate again spoke to them, desiring to release Jesus. But they cried again, saying: Crucify him, crucify him. And he said to them the third time: ‘Why, what evil hath this man done? I find no cause of death in him: I will chastise him therefore, and let him go. But they were instant with loud voices requiring that he might be crucified…” This same idea of saving the Just Man from death by means of tortures, which fell little short of it, seems to have had strong hold of Pilate. We find it again in that most touching incident of the Ecce Homo, recorded by St. John, Ch. xix. 4-5: “Pilate therefore went forth again, and saith to them: Behold I bring him forth unto you, that you may know that find no cause in him. Jesus therefore came forth bearing the crown of thorns, and the purple garment. And he saith to them: Behold the Man.”]
The pillar, to which He was bound, is religiously preserved at Rome, in the church of St. Praxede. It is, as it were, a living, tangible monument, bearing powerful witness to the infinite love of the Son of God, and to the unspeakable heinousness of sin.
Nowhere do we find that the two thieves were scourged before going to Calvary. Now whereas the scourging formed a necessary part of the death penalty, it follows that it must have been inflicted on them on their way thither, which, as we have already said, was strictly in keeping with the usual practice in public executions.
According to the ancient pagan writers, the torture was administered in this wise. First the criminal—generally a slave, whose guilt was not, perhaps, a tenth part that of his inhuman master—was stripped of all his clothes, next the cross was tied on his back, then the procession started, some of the executioners walking before the victim, dragging him with ropes, the others following behind with whips wherewith they scourged him without ceasing, until they arrived at the place of execution.
Here again we must pause to observe the perfect agreement of the Gospel with the teaching of history. The sacred text speaks of our Lord as going forth “bearing His own cross.” Plutarch tells us that “the criminal was always made to carry his own cross.” And Artemidorus says: “He first carries his cross, who is condemned to die upon it.”
Occasionally the Romans forced the unhappy slave's comrades to become the ministers of his death, and often they used to take delight in prolonging the torture by going the longest way to the place of execution. “An illustrious Roman,” says Dionysius, of Halicarnassus, “having condemned one of his slaves to death, ordered his other slaves to execute the sentence. In order to make the punishment as public and notorious as possible, he commanded them to take him through the Forum and all the other most frequented thoroughfares, scourging him all the time, without ceasing. And thus they led him about the city, with the cross fastened to his outspread arms, and tightly bound across his breast and under his shoulders; those who followed striking and wounding, without pity, his naked body.”
Cicero and Livy make mention of the same sort of atrocity, without a word of pity or censure. The latter, describing the games, tells us that “all Rome being assembled in the circus, a certain father of a family commanded that one of his slaves should make the round of the arena, bearing his cross and being scourged, until the games should begin.” [...]
If therefore we wish to have an idea of the scourging of the two thieves, we must represent to ourselves that last, most ghastly procession, slowly wending its way towards Calvary.
First, we distinguish among the large crowds the trumpeters who precede the criminals, then comes a public crier, proclaiming their names and deeds, and finally the criminals themselves, one of whom is an old man. Both are stripped of their garments, and carry their crosses fastened to their backs, with their arms extended and bound to the two extremities. Both are dragged along by ropes, and followed by the executioners, who scourge them all the way from the Prætorium to Mount Calvary, a distance of thirteen hundred paces.
Who knows but what this dreadful torture, undergone within sight of the uncomplaining Lamb of God, may have been for Dimas the beginning of a serious self-examination—the germ, indeed, of that repentance, which was to bear such glorious fruits on Calvary. […]
The Way of Sorrow.
The day and the hour of the crucifixion of our Lord and Saviour, have been carefully handed down to us, both in the Holy Scriptures, and in the writings of the Fathers. The time of our Lord's death, being that also of the death of the Good Thief, it is not, I think, straying beyond our subject, to enter into some detail concerning it. The day thereof fell upon a Friday, the 25th of the month of March, in the year of grace 33, the eighteenth of the reign of Tiberius Cæsar, under the consulate of the Gemini. And the hour, between the fifth and the sixth hour—that is, as we are about to show, between eleven and midday.
In the words of Tertullian: “The passion and death (of Christ) took place within the time of the seventy weeks, under Tiberius Cæsar and the Consuls Rubellius Geminus and Rufius Geminus, in the month of March, during the Paschal time, the eighth day of the Kalends of April [the eighth day of the Kalends of April, Julian Calendar = 25th of March], the first of the Azimes.”
St. Augustine speaks in the same sense: “No man denies that the Lord suffered on the sixth day before the Sabbath, for which reason this sixth day has been set aside for a fast.” “According to a tradition of the ancients, sanctioned by the authority of the Church, it would appear that He was conceived on the eighth of the Kalends of April, on which day also He suffered.” Therefore Christ died upon the eighth of the Kalends of April; the two Gemini being Consuls.”
And St. Chrysostom: “Our Lord was crucified in the month of March, on the eighth of the Kalends of April [the eighth day of the Kalends of April, Julian Calendar = 25th of March], which is the paschal day of the passion of the Lord and of His conception. So that He was conceived on the same day as that on which He suffered.”
Summing up this ancient tradition (in favour of which it would be easy to cite many more witnesses), Venerable Bede speaks as follows: “Our Lord was crucified and buried on the sixth day of the week (Friday). . . . . But that He was crucified on the eighth of the Kalends of April and rose again on the sixth of those Kalends [27th of March] is a commonly received opinion, well established by the consentient voice of an immense number of doctors of the Church.”
This date has been set down in the Roman Martyrology, and is so much respected that Roger Bacon at the end of the thirteenth, and Alphonsus Tostat in the fourteenth century, having ventured to impugn it, were both severely reprimanded by competent authority. Some have opposed various astronomical tables to this venerable tradition. But in his “Régies sur l’Usage de la Critique,” the learned Honoré de Sainte-Marie has clearly shown that these tables contradict each other. Père Pétau also has proved them incorrect, after submitting them to a long and searching examination.
Let us now consider the hour, at which the crucifixion took place. It is well known that the Jews did not observe the division of time now in use, but that they divided the day and night into four equal parts, each of their hours being equal to three of ours. The names of their day-hours have been religiously preserved by the Church, in memory of the several acts of the Sacred Passion. We find them in the Divine Office. The first is called prime, and this began at sunrise (Good Friday coming upon the equinox, it consequently began, on that day, at six o'clock); the second, terce, lasted from nine o'clock, till noon; the third, sext, from twelve, till three; and the fourth, none, from three, till six, in the evening.
At first sight, there would seem to be some difficulty in determining the precise hour of our Saviour's crucifixion. St. Mark speaks of the third hour: “And it was the third hour, and they crucified Him.” Whereas St. John himself, an eye-witness, says: “And it was the parasceve of the pasch, about the sixth hour, and he saith to the Jews: ‘Behold your King.’ But they cried out: ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him.” Pilate saith to them, ‘Shall I crucify your king?’ The chief priests answered: ‘We have no king but Cæssar.’ Then, therefore, he delivered Him to them to be crucified. And they took Jesus and led Him forth.” (St. John, xix. 14-16)
The contradiction between the two evangelists is rather apparent than real. We would follow the Fathers of the Church, who hold with St. Mark that our Divine Lord and his fellow-sufferers were fastened to the cross towards the end of the third hour—that is, a little before noon; and, with St. John, that they were lifted up about the beginning of the sixth hour, which would bring it to the same time of day. Or, as say the Apostolic Constitutions: “They fastened Him to the wood of the cross at the sixth hour, but, at the third hour it was, that they obtained the sentence of His condemnation.” (Const. Apost., lib. v. c. xiii.)
This death-sentence, given during the third hour, was, so to speak, the crucifixion in germ, and the carrying out of the sentence during the end of that same hour and the beginning of the next, its practical development. “So that,” as says St. Ignatius of Antioch, “by the permission of God, He received sentence at the hands of Pilate, on the Parasceve, at the third hour, and was crucified at the sixth hour.”
Now that we know the day and the hour of our Lord's condemnation, let us see what was the place, where sentence was passed upon Him, and upon the thieves. That place was the Prætorium, or house of Pilate. It had originally been the palace of the first Herod, and was situate at the foot of the rock on which was built the Antonian tower or stronghold. The remains of it are still to be seen, but the palace has been turned into a Turkish barrack. At a little distance from the chief block, was a smaller building, with a portico, in which the Roman guard were lodged. This was on the eastern side, facing towards Mount Calvary. Between it and the palace itself was an open court, paved with mosaic, according to the lordly custom of those times.
It was in this court, that the priests, and ancients, and all the people were gathered together, clamouring for the death of the Saviour of Mankind. As we read: “And they went not into the hall that they might not be defiled, but that they might eat the Pasch. And Pilate therefore went out to them.” (St. John, xviii. 28-29) Now the place, where Pilate came out to them, formed a sort of arcade in front of the halls of the palace, and here it was, that he spoke to them many times over, and strove to release their King; and here, that after the scourging, he said to them: “Behold, I bring Him forth unto you, that you may know that I find no cause in Him.”
And “Jesus therefore came forth bearing the crown of thorns and the purple garment. And he saith to them: ‘Behold the Man.’ ” (St. John, xix. 4-5) But they, far from being moved with pity, cried out the more: “Crucify Him, crucify Him.” (St. John, xix. 6)
[…] The third hour was now far advanced, and every effort made by Pilate to save the Just Man had been foiled by the deadly hate of those, who through envy had delivered Him up. Seeing that they could not be brought to listen to the claims of justice, that they obstinately refused to admit His innocence, Pilate strove to set Him free on the score of mercy. He reminded them of their peculiar privilege. “But you have a custom that I should release one unto you at the Pasch. Will you, therefore, that I release unto you the King of the Jews?” (St. John, xviii. 39) But this, also, proved vain. “Then cried they all again, saying: ‘Not this Man, but Barabbas.’ Now Barabbas was a robber,” (St. John, xviii. 40) one who had been guilty of murder and sedition. (St. Luke, xxiii. 19; also St. Mark, xv. 7)
Let us reverently seek to pierce the veil and to understand the awful mystery hidden under this evil choice. The two men thus profanely brought into sacrilegious contrast represent the old Adam and the new—the old Adam, all steeped in crime; the new Adam, Christ, covered with wounds from head to foot; the old Adam, though justly condemned, set free and saved, by the new Adam undergoing the death-penalty in his stead. This robber was a true type and symbol of the human race, degraded and vilified by robberies, and murders, and every species of sinful revolt against the laws of Nature and of God. In the King of the Jews, we find at once the Model and the Cause of our perfect regeneration. By His stripes we are healed, and saved through His life-giving death.
Sentence had been no sooner passed upon Christ than the prison-gates of Barabbas were flung open; by which was signified the breaking, by means of the Saviour's death, of those heavy-wrought chains of sin which, during long thousands of years, had held man captive in the prison-house of guilt. The barrier was at last thrown down, and the oppressed sons of Adam restored to freedom—even the freedom of the children of God.
Jesus, now being condemned to death, two malefactors were brought forth out of their dungeons to be executed together with Him. His enemies thought, by this means, to heap even greater shame upon Him, whereas they were but preparing the triumph of His mercy. Thus, in their blind fury, they were unconsciously working out the eternal designs of God, and marking the chosen Messiah with yet one more of the signs foretold in prophecy. In the words of the Evangelist: “The Scripture was fulfilled, which saith: And with the wicked He was reputed.” (St. Mark, xv. 28; Prophesy of Isaias, liii. 12)
Each of those condemned was made to bear his own cross. Our Saviour was clothed again in His own garments, but the thieves went naked. The reason of this difference does not appear. It was necessary, however, to the fulfilment after his crucifixion of that other passage of Holy Writ: “They have parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture they have cast lots.” (Ps, xxi. 19; St. Matth, xxvii. 35; St. Mark, xv. 24; St. Luke, xxiii. 34; St. John, xix. 23-24)
Since morning the inhabitants of Jerusalem had been gradually flocking round the Prætorium. There was now a dense crowd, swayed to and fro by excitement and vicious hate. The state of frenzy to which their evil priests had worked them up was so fearful that it required the whole Roman cohort, numbering some twelve hundred men, to keep them within bounds. The signal at last was given for the death-train to set out. This must have been towards half-past eleven, as the crucifixion took place about noon, and the distance between the Prætorium and Calvary is a little under a mile. The road thus traversed has been fitly termed the Via Dolorosa—the Way of Sorrow.
Our Lord, therefore, coming down what, in remembrance of Him, are now called the Holy Stairs, passed under that same arcade from the top of which He had been shown to the people. [The scala sancta have been removed to Rome, where they are exposed for the pious veneration of the faithful. No foot is allowed to touch these steps, made sacred by the Saviour's tread. Those who would go up them must do so humbly, and on their knees.] Then crossing the outer court, He and his companions were led down the Street of the Palace, which, about two hundred paces beyond, was crossed by another street coming from the Gate of Damascus, anciently, the Gate of Ephraim. At the corner of this street, tradition tells us that Mary, the Mother of God, was standing, waiting to see her Son pass by. Coming out of this street was to be seen, so it is said, the house of the wicked rich-man spoken of in the Gospel. The next street was straight, but very steep. About the middle of it, on the left, was the house of the holy woman, Veronica. Tradition has handed down to us the praise of her bold and glorious deed. Thus, we know how, being moved with pity and religious horror, she fearlessly made her way through the crowd, and came and reverently wiped with her veil the outraged, bleeding face of Christ. To reward her for this loving act of faith, He deigned to leave the print of His divine countenance stamped upon the linen.
Dimas, and the other thief, must have been witnesses of this, and they must, indeed, have marvelled to see their Fellow Sufferer, at the same time, the object of such great love, and of hate so intense. Their wonder must have increased, when they saw a great multitude of women bewailing and lamenting Him; and still more at His sublime forgetfulness of self and shepherd-like care for the people when He, turning, exhorted them not to weep over Him, but for themselves and for their children. (St. Luke, xxiii. 27-31) These words, and the accompanying prophecy, must have sunk deep into the heart of the Good Thief; and, together with that divine prayer he was about to hear: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” may very well be looked upon as the seed of that grace, which was soon to bear such glorious fruit on Calvary.
At the end of the street, in which Veronica's house was situate, was the Gate of Judgment, which those condemned had to pass through, on their way to the place of execution. In the time of our Lord, the city did not extend beyond. Even now, it is easy to trace the exact spot where the gate once stood.
In all the cities of Judea was to be found the Gate of Judgment. It was so called because the ancients of the people were wont to sit therein, administering justice. As we read in Deuteronomy: “If a man have a stubborn and unruly son, who will not hear the commandments of his father or mother, and being corrected, slighteth obedience, they shall take him and bring him to the ancients of his city, and to the Gate of Judgment, and shall say to them: ‘This our son is rebellious and stubborn, he slighteth hearing our admonitions, he giveth himself to revelling and to debauchery and banquetings.’ The people of the city shall stone him, and he shall die, that you may take away the evil out of the midst of you.” (Deuteronomy, xxi. 18)
Now, what was the reason for which the ancient Hebrews set down their tribunals in the very gates of their cities? Several reasons are given, of which the following are the two chief. The first, that all strangers, on coming to the city, should understand that justice was there meted out in true measure, and that all alike had equal right and opportunity for bringing forward their claims and wrongs. And thus all evil-doers would be overawed, or kept away by the sight of authority so firm and wakeful. Hence, among the Jews, the word gate was held to be of like meaning with that of power.
Of the word as used in this sense, we find the most solemn example in St. Matthew's Gospel. I allude to that sentence of our Divine Lord's which is to the Church, as it were, the charter of her immortality: “Thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (St. Matth, xvi. 18)
[…] And, the second reason, why judgment was always given in the gate of the city, was that all discord and fighting should be kept without, the disputants not being allowed to enter the city until justice had been done and their feud made up. This necessarily tended greatly to the due maintenance of peace and order within the precincts.
Beyond the Gate of Judgment, is situate the hill of Calvary. But before touching its sacred soil, consecrated by such high and unspeakable mysteries, we will first attempt to give some description of the city of Jerusalem, which may serve as a help towards the right understanding of the Gospel narrative.
The city is built upon a mountain, the descent from which is abrupt and precipitous on every side, except on a portion of that looking westward. On the north it is bounded by the Valley of Jehoshaphat, on the east by that of Gideon, and on the south by that named Gehennah. The mountain is divided into several peaks or hills, of different heights, the most renowned of which is Calvary.
Let us listen for a moment to a venerable Eastern bishop, of the Early Church, the illustrious master of disciples, yet more illustrious. I mean Diodorus of Tarsus, the teacher of St. Chrysostom, St. Basil, and St. Athanasius. He says: “Mount Moria was divided into several hills and peaks. The height looking eastward was called Mount Sion. This was the citadel of David. Close by was the threshing-floor of Ornan, the Jebusite, which was bought by David and became the site of Solomon's temple, as we read (2 Paralip. iii. 1). Outside the walls of the city is that other height of Mount Moria, which is called Calvary, on which Isaac was sacrificed, and the Christ, Whom he prefigured.”
Later on we find other writers, not less reliable than the saintly Bishop of Tarsus, who divide Mount Moria into three principal hills—the first, Sion, so called by reason of its height; the second, Moria proper; the third, Calvary. On Mount Sion, the city and tower of David; on Moria, the Temple; on Mount Calvary, the Cross of Christ.
The following is a further description of Mount Calvary, written a few years ago by Monsgr. Mislin, whose learned work we have already had occasion to quote. “At the time of our Lord, Calvary was outside the walls of the city and beyond the Gate of Judgment. It was there that our Lord suffered, ‘extraportam passus est.’ To-day, however, the hill is within the circle of the walls. The reason of this is, that the present walls do not follow the line of the ancient ones.
“Recent excavations have brought to light what are undoubtedly the remains of the ancient walls. The best preserved part of them is near the Gate of Judgment. All the space beyond that, at present built over by the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Latin convent, and great part of the Greek convent, must have been outside the city. This portion of the present town was, at the time of our Lord, laid out in gardens, such as that of Joseph of Arimathea, and a few scattered houses, and was taken into the town by Agrippa the Ancient, about ten years after our Lord's death. These walls formed the third circumvallation of Jerusalem.”
In spite of this modification of the soil, Mount Calvary still bears sufficient proof of its identity in the marks indelibly impressed upon it at the time of the sacred Passion. Thus, in the same way, notwithstanding the changes the world has undergone, the earth holds always within its bosom the hidden fossil-evidence of the truth of the Mosaic history.
The celebrated Adricomius, who, three centuries ago, examined the rent in the rock of Calvary, gives us the following description: “On the rocky mount of Calvary there still remains proof of the rending of the rocks. The rent is plainly discernible which was made at the moment of our Lord's death, to the right of this cross, just in front of the cross of the bad thief. Traces may yet be seen upon it of the Saviour's blood. The opening is so wide as easily to admit the passage of a human body, and so deep is it that all attempts to sound it have been vain. It would seem as though it penetrated to the very centre of the earth, so that as Christ's death opened to the Good Thief the way to Heaven, so the rending of the rocks opened for the bad thief, as aforetime to the rebel Cora, the road to hell.”
Let us now listen to the testimony of a later traveller, himself a Protestant, and cited by a great Protestant writer. “A highly estimable English gentleman once recounted to me how, in a journey which he had made throughout Palestine, he was accompanied by a very clever friend of his, a Deist, who, wherever they went, endeavoured to turn into ridicule all that was told them by the Catholic priests concerning the holy places. In this irreverently satirical frame of mind this man went to see the rents of the rock, which are shown on Mount Calvary as the effect of the earthquake at the time of our Lord's death. The rock itself is now within the vast basilica built by Constantine.
“But when the Deist, who was also a naturalist, had made a careful examination and study of these openings, he said to his friend: ‘I begin to be a Christian. I have long studied the physical sciences,’ he continued, ‘and I feel certain that the fissures in this rock cannot possibly be traced to any natural causes. An ordinary earthquake might have broken up the rock, it is true; but the cracks would have been made in a different sense. They would have followed the lay of the various veins or strata, and have been largest in those parts where the strata were narrowest and weakest. This is how we always find the breaks in such rocks as have been displaced and broken by means of earthquakes. But here it is far otherwise. The rock is transversely divided. The opening cuts straight through the strata in a most strange and inexplicable way. It seems, therefore, to me to be a clear proof of some supernatural and miraculous intervention; for which reason I thank God for having led me hither to contemplate this monument of His wondrous power—a monument which can leave no doubt of the divinity of Jesus Christ.’ ”
As we have already said, Calvary is now within the walls of Jerusalem. The lower part of the hill is covered with houses; on the top of it is built the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We have, as it were, examined the sacred rock itself; and now, before continuing our study of the tremendous mysteries there enacted, let us pause once more to explain the deep meaning of the name of Calvary.
The Syro-Chaldaïc name of the mount is Golgotha, which may be rendered, “Place of the Skull.” If we would know whence this strange designation, we must listen to the tradition of the venerable East. James Orrohaita (sive Edessenus) serves as its mouthpiece. He says: “When Noah entered into the ark, he took with him the bones of our first father, Adam. After the waters of the Deluge had subsided, and he came out again upon the dry land, the patriarch divided these precious remains among his three sons, giving the head to Sem, as being the eldest. To him also was given the land of Judea, when the brothers went forth to colonize the world. Whether of his own motion, or by order of his father, we know not, but certain it is that Sem buried the skull upon the hill which bears its name.” Thus was the first Adam laid where the Blood of the second Adam should be shed to wash away his stains, and give life to the world, in the very place where slept he, through whose disobedience death had entered into it.
However strange this tradition may appear at first sight, the most illustrious Fathers of the Church, both in East and West, have not hesitated to accept and repeat it. We have already cited the venerable Master of St. Ephrem Syrus, and in our next chapter we shall give passages of the same import from many other Fathers. Here, we would observe that the tradition is worthy of the wonderful ways of the Divine Wisdom, and, moreover, is in strict keeping with the natural feelings of man and the customs of the ancient patriarchs.
“All the people of the earth,” says the learned Massio, “have always taken religious care of the remains of the illustrious dead. This feeling of respect is inborn in man, so that nowhere do we find that the bones or ashes of the dead have been treated as profane and worthless objects. Though separated from the soul, they have still within them, as it were, an indescribable germ of immortality, which shall, one day, reclothe them in their flesh, and bud forth into life everlasting.”
In Egypt, as we know, the dead received even superstitious honours. Among the Romans, nothing was more sacred than the tomb, as is shown not only by their writings, but also by the number and magnificence of the sepulchral monuments they have left us. The same may be said not only of all civilized nations, but also of the savages, themselves. We read of the aborigines of America that they retired before the invaders, carrying with them the bones of their forefathers. Why, therefore, should not Noah have done for his father—the father of the human race—what so many others, less religious than he, have done for their comparatively insignificant progenitors?
The care taken by his descendants of the bones of their ancestors is more than once recorded in Holy Scripture. When Jacob was dying, he desired his sons to bury his remains in the Promised Land, and they did as he had commanded them (Genesis, xl. 29; l. 13). And at the time of the Exodus, the Israelites did not neglect to take with them the bones of Joseph, according to the oath he had made them swear (Genesis, l. 24; Exodus, xiii. 19; Joshua, xxiv. 32).
There is no sentiment more natural or more healthy than respect for the dead, and low indeed must that nation be sunk, where their memory is neglected or their tombs left uncared for. Such neglect would show the basest ingratitude and corruption of heart, and, with a people so degraded, there would be little left to hope for.
Mount Calvary (continued).
The passages from the Fathers, in which mention is made of the Calvarian tradition, are so numerous that it is impossible for us to quote them all. We shall, therefore, content ourselves with giving a few of the most striking.
We will begin with the testimony of the great Apologist, Tertullian. “Golgotha,” he says, “is the place of the skull; hence, sometimes, called Calvary. There the first man was buried, so we have been taught. There Christ suffered, and watered the ground with His precious Blood, that, mixing with the dust of the old Adam, this Blood, together with the water out of the Saviour's side, should cleanse it from all stain.”
The tradition which, in the second century, was taught in the Western Church, was not less widespread in the East. A great cotemporary of Tertullian's speaks of it in these terms: “It is said that the place of Calvary was not unknown, but that rather it was in a special manner remarkable, and justly predestined to be the scene of the death of Him, Who died to save mankind. The tradition has come down to me that the body of the first man lies buried on the spot where Christ was crucified; that whereas in Adam all men had died, so in Christ all should live again. Thus on Calvary (the place of the skull) the head of the human race, with all his descendants, did rise to a new life, through the resurrection of the Saviour, who there did suffer, and there did rise again.” (Origen, Tract xxxv. in Matt.)
The great doctor of the Church, St. Basil, uses much the same language as that above quoted from Origen, but he adds several details respecting the father of mankind. “There is in the Church,” he says, “a tradition which has been verbally handed down to us, according to which, it would appear that the first inhabitant of Judea was Adam himself; that he established himself there, after being driven out of Paradise. Thus was this country, the first to receive the remains of a dead man, when Adam had paid the penalty of death. To that first generation of men, a head denuded of flesh was a strange and horrible sight. It made so strong and lasting an impression upon them that thenceforward they called the place, in which they had laid it, the Place of the Skull. It is improbable that Noah should have ignored the place, where the chief of mortal men was buried, and still more improbable that he should not have pointed it out to his children, after the Deluge. This being so, we may safely trace the tradition back to him. For this reason it was, that our Lord, having come to destroy death in its very root, elected to die on this said Place of the Skull, that, where death had taken its origin, there also life should begin its reign; so that death, which had prevailed over Adam, should from Christ receive its death-blow.”
St. Epiphanius, who was a native of Palestine, and well versed in the traditions of his country, writes thus:—“We have learnt from our most elementary books that our Lord Jesus Christ was crucified on Golgotha, the very spot where lay the body of Adam.”
And St. Athanasius: “Jesus Christ willed to be crucified on Mount Calvary, which, according to the belief of the most learned among the Jews, was the burial place of Adam.”
And St. Ambrose: “The spot on which was planted the cross of our Lord, was the very same place where Adam was buried. To this the Jews bear solemn witness.”
St. Chrysostom, commenting on the nineteenth chapter of St. John, makes mention of the same tradition.
St. Augustin repeats it, together with that other tradition, which we have already given, in the words of Diodorus of Tarsus. He says: “Hear ye yet another mystery. The blessed priest, Jerome, writes that he has ascertained beyond doubt, from the ancients and princes of the Jews, that Isaac was offered up on the very spot where afterwards the Lord Jesus was crucified. . . . We also hear, from the tradition of the ancients, that the first man, Adam, was buried on exactly the same place where the cross was fixed, which place was called Calvary, from the head of the human race having been buried there.
“And in truth, my brethren, there is nothing unreasonable, in believing that the Physician was there lifted up, where lay the sick man; that where human pride had caused death, there the divine mercy should descend, and that the precious Blood of Christ should wash, even in a physical sense, the dust of the first sinner, to redeem whose race, the Saviour died.” [...]
Hundreds of years had passed since the early Fathers had given their witness, but the tradition they had accepted and confirmed was still found living and fresh as ever when Adricomius and Quaresmus wrote the most learned of modern histories of the Holy Land.
Quaresmus says: “It is believed that it was not only from a sentiment of filial piety, that the body of Adam was taken up and preserved in the ark from the destructive waters of the Deluge, but rather in consequence of a command which Adam had left to his descendants to bury him in the land of Juda.
“Among the mysteries which God had revealed to our first parent, the chief must have had reference to the Saviour, Who was to come. It was made known to him that the Son of God would, one day, deign to die for us at Jerusalem, on the mount of Calvary. Nothing therefore was more likely, than that he should desire his children to bury his body on the spot, where Christ was to be put to death, that, participating in the fruits of that death, he might be called again to life there, where death had so long held him captive.”
It will be generally acknowledged, that a tradition which is authenticated by the almost unanimous testimony of the earliest and greatest Fathers of the Church, and confirmed and reiterated by the most learned critics of modern times, may be well able to defy the attacks of the few, who venture to impugn it. […]
The tradition concerning Adam's having been buried on Calvary is still popularly shown forth in one of the most familiar of our symbols. I allude to the death's head so often to be found at the foot of the crucifix. For many of those who look upon it, the meaning is hidden, like that of such a number of the most instructive symbols. And yet how profoundly touching is its meaning! By this death's head at the foot of the figure of Christ, the connection is shown between the first and the second Adam; the sinner is placed under the expiator; death, sin's penalty, shows itself as vanquished by the death of the Just; and the whole human race is typified both as fallen in Adam, and as redeemed by Jesus Christ our Lord.
There is yet another beautiful tradition attaching to the place of Calvary, of which we must say a few words, so that we may devoutly follow our Lord and His companions on their way thither, our minds deeply penetrated with all the types and figures, which shall prepare us fitly to enter upon the contemplation of this last, most tremendous mystery. This tradition tells us that it was on Calvary that was offered up the sacrifice of Abraham. The truth of it is most sure, for it rests on the double foundation of Scripture and the writings of the Fathers. And the Lord saith to Him: “Take thine only begotten son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and go into the land of Vision, and there thou shalt offer him for an holocaust upon one of the mountains which I will show thee.” (Gen, xxii. 2) The land of Vision is, in Hebrew, the land of Moria—i.e., the land where is the Mount of Moria. We have already seen that Calvary is one of the heights of this mountain. When Abraham received the command to sacrifice his son he was living in the land of Gerara, whence to Mount Moria it was a three days' journey, as we read in Genesis: “on the third day, lifting up his eyes, he saw the place afar off.” (Gen. xxii. 4)
For patristic evidence we will content ourselves with citing St. Augustine, who gives us this tradition on the authority of St. Jerome: “Jerome the priest writes that he has learnt from the ancients of the Jews that it is beyond doubt that Isaac was sacrificed on the same spot where Adam was buried, and Christ crucified.”
This tradition is therefore true, beyond doubt. It is also singularly beautiful; full, indeed, of that ravishing beauty which is stamped upon every work of the Divine Wisdom. Let us observe the glorious relation between the type and the Antitype. By the order of his father, Isaac goes up the mountain, carrying the wood for the sacrifice. By the command, also, of His heavenly Father, Christ goes up the same mountain, bearing His own cross. Isaac, by his figurative sacrifice, marked out, fifteen hundred years beforehand, the sacred place where was to be accomplished the true and life-giving sacrifice of the Son of God. As the reward of their obedience Abraham and Isaac received those splendid promises, the best of which foretold the coming of Him in whom “all the nations of the earth” should “be blessed;” and He, the Promised One, received, as the price of His death, “all the peoples as His inheritance.”
Before going up the mysterious Mount of Calvary, we think fit to pause awhile to inquire why it was chosen as the scene of our Lord's crucifixion. We have already said something of the reasons which had marked it out in the designs of the Providence of God; it remains for us to examine, what motives induced the enemies of Christ to become, themselves, the instruments for working out those designs.
The clue is easily found in a widespread custom of the ancients, preserved to us in history, which here again, as in so many other instances, confirms the truth of the Biblical story. The custom, I speak of, consisted in choosing the most frequented and most exposed places for the execution of criminals, so that the greatest possible number of persons might assist thereat, and learn from it what was thought to be a salutary and instructive lesson. Quintilian says, speaking on this subject: “Whenever criminals are put to death by crucifixion, we always select the most conspicuous among the places of public resort, so that as many as possible may see the execution, and be terrified thereby.”
[…] For the sake of publicity a height was always chosen by preference, if one was to be found in the immediate neighbourhood of the town where the criminal had been condemned. For the same reason the crosses were sometimes made extraordinarily high. […]
Let us return to the height of Calvary and witness the arrival there of Christ our Lord and His two companions. Some among the soldiery are digging the holes in which to plant the crosses, others seize their victims, and, throwing them down upon their backs, begin fastening them to the crosses they had carried thither. The huge crowd is looking on with various feelings, mostly hatred and cruel rage. Let us, also, approach, and, prostrate in spirit, wonderingly adore the innocent Lamb of God, the Victim of our salvation. What a mystery is here! In the words of St. Augustine: “There are here three crosses: on the one is the robber who is about to be made free; on the other, the robber who is about to be condemned; in the midst, Christ, the Saviour of the one, the Judge of the other. How like the crosses! How immeasurably unlike, those who hang upon them!”
As says St. Augustine, the crosses were alike; but what was that likeness? Among the ancients the form of the cross was not always the same. I think it not uninteresting to give some description of the five chief known varieties of this instrument, originally the most shameful of gallows, now become the most glorious of all signs.
First, we have the simple cross, the crux simplex of the Romans. This was merely an upright pole or broad stake, to which the victim was nailed in the fame position, more or less, as on the other sorts of crosses. Often this form of cross was so low that the wild beasts could reach the person hanged upon it, and devour him while yet alive. Of this last horror we have two very famous examples. The one we find in Holy Writ, where mention is made of the crucifixion of the seven sons of Saul, given up by David into the hands of the Gabaonites. “And these seven died together in the first days of the harvest, when the barley began to be reaped. And Rizpah, the daughter of Aiah, took hair cloth and spread it under her upon the rock, from the beginning of the harvest till water dropped upon them out of Heaven, and suffered neither the birds to tear them by day, nor the beasts by night.” (2 Kings xxi. 9, 10)
The other example I spoke of is preserved to us by Eusebius in the celebrated letter of the churches of Vienne and Lyons. The passage treats of the death of the saintly Blandina, a martyr, and one of the glories of the latter illustrious church. “Blandina was then tied to a stake and given over to the wild beasts. At this sight, her companions were inspired with a new courage. They were filled with unearthly joy on seeing her nailed up almost in the same manner as Jesus Christ was nailed upon the Cross. They felt it to be a happy sign and a sure augury of triumph, for, under the appearance of their sister, it seemed to them as if they could discern Him, Who had been crucified for their sake. And thus they marched fearlessly to death in the sweet hope and belief that whomsoever dies for the name of Jesus Christ, will receive new life in the bosom of the Living God.”
The second form of cross was called by the Romans furca, it being in the shape of a fork, having the same appearance as the letter Y. This was the sort of cross generally used for executing slaves. Apuleus speaks of it as being also used for other criminals. This, like the simple cross or stake, was so low as to allow of the dogs and other animals devouring the victim.
Then we have the crux decussata, consisting of two pieces of wood placed cross-wise, the pieces being of equal length, and one end of each fixed in the ground. This cross may be represented by the letter X. It is popularly known as the cross of St. Andrew, it having been the instrument by which the martyrdom of that glorious apostle was finally accomplished, at Patras, in Achaia.
The fourth sort of cross was the crux commissa, a single pole with a cross bar over the top, in the form of the letter T.
And fifthly, the crux immissa, a straight piece of wood, with arms across the upper part. This is the cross which is most familiar to us, being used throughout the West, for which reason it is called, also, the Latin cross.
Now comes the question which of these various sorts of crosses served for our Lord and His two companions. The testimony of the Fathers is divided on this subject. Tertullian, St. Jerome, and St. Paulinus, affirm positively that it was the crux commissa.
The first says: “The Greek letter Tau, which is also our T, is the figure of the cross.”
St. Jerome says: “In the ancient Hebrew alphabet, which is still in use among the Samaritans, the last letter, “Tau” (Tav) has the appearance of the cross.” (Ezechiel, ix. 4)
And St. Paulinus: “Christ triumphed over the powers of the enemy, not through the number or the strength of legions, but through the mysterious virtue of the cross, the figure of which, in the Greek letter T, expresses the number three hundred.”
The testimony of these Fathers seems to us on this point to be preferable to that of some others equally venerable—such, for instance, as St. Justinus, St. Irenæus, and St. Augustine, who seem to incline rather towards the ordinary Latin form. Our chief reason for adopting the former opinion is this. Our Lord throughout his life, and especially in the smallest details of his Sacred Passion, fulfilled every type and every prophecy. Whence in very truth he was able to say, when expiring upon the cross, “It is finished.”
Now, the crux commissa, of which we are speaking, furnishes us with the antitype of two great figures of the Old Testament. In the passages above cited, Tertullian and St. Jerome both refer to this text of Ezechiel: “And the Lord said to him, ‘Go through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and mark Tau upon the foreheads of the men that sigh and mourn for all the abominations that are committed in the midst thereof.’ ” (Ezechiel, ix. 4) And the further command to the destroyers: “But upon whomsoever ye shall see Tau, kill him not.” (Ezechiel, ix. 6) That Tau was at the same time, the material form and the mystical figure of the cross. Signed on the foreheads of the just men of Jerusalem, it saved them aforetime from temporal death, as we read in the vision; signed upon the foreheads of the followers of Christ, it shall save them from that worse death, which is to everlasting.
There is yet another mystery connected with this form of cross. According to the Greek system of numeration, the letter Tau has the value of three hundred. Now, it was with this mystical number of three hundred men that Gideon overcame the Madianites. In the figure, Gideon goes down into the camp by night. His soldiers each carry a lamp, hidden within an earthen pitcher. At a given moment, the pitchers are broken and the light of the lamps suddenly shines forth, the trumpets blow, and the enemy are so panic-stricken that they all take to flight. Let us now look at the reality, foreshadowed by the sword of the Lord and of Gideon.
Amid the darkness of Calvary, the humanity of Christ, under which the God-head lay hidden, is torn and broken by the agony of the cross. The light of His divinity shines forth in great signs and wonders, and with the Tau—the mystical three hundred—the true Gideon puts to flight the powers of hell.
The tradition concerning the true form of the cross may still be found in the Missal, where, at the beginning of the Canon of the Mass, there is always a representation of the Crucifixion. This picture, or engraving, which we see in the modern editions, was confined in the ancient missals to a small cross painted under or within the T, commencing the words, “Te igitur, clementissime Pater;” so that at the beginning of this most sacred part of the mass the figure and the Reality, the type and the antitype, were brought together, and, so to speak, confounded in one. This small detail of symbolism is known to very few, although pointed out by the learned Pamelius so many hundred years ago.
Nevertheless, as we have already said, some of the Fathers describe the cross in the way in which we generally represent it. How can we explain their mistake? The difficulty is solved for us by Innocent III., who, speaking at the fourth Council of the Lateral, says: “The tau is the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet. It expresses the form of the cross, such as it was before Pilate caused it to be surmounted by the title of our crucified Lord.” (Apud. Lable. Conc. t. ii. p. 133)
The historian Nicephorus is equally explicit. Speaking of the finding of the Holy Cross by St. Helena, he says: “Three crosses were found near together, and the white tablet on which Pilate had written ‘King of the Jews,’ in several languages—which tablet had been fixed above the head of Christ, in the form of a column, so that the crucified One should be known to be the King of the Jews.” (Hist., lib. viii. c. xxix.) And, finally, the Gloss says, in so many words: “The tablet (or placard) placed above the cross formed, as it were, a fourth arm.”
“This being so,” says Sandini, “it is easy to reconcile the apparent contradiction. Those Fathers who speak of the Cross of Christ as being in the form of the letter T—that is, a crux commissa—describe it without the tablet bearing our Lord's cause or title; and those who call it a crux immissa, having four arms or extremities, speak of it in conjunction with the tablet, which was placed upon it.”
We do not think it necessary to apologize for the length of our digression, for who could find wearisome details which help us to know the Cross of Christ, such as the world saw it, once, and shook to its very centre; such as it will see it again, when, the end being come, the heavens and the earth shall, with a great noise, pass away? In the Cross is the mystery of mysteries. It is the trophy of the Son of God, the blessed instrument of our Redemption; in a word, our joy and comfort in this life, and our hope in the latter day, when, to the great terror of the wicked, it shall appear in the heavens telling forth the second coming of Christ: when He shall judge the world, and, in the face of the assembled peoples, render to every man according to his works.
The Sufferings of the Cross.
We come now to the crucifixion itself. It would be a mistake to suppose that the two thieves were fastened to their crosses by ropes instead of nails, as we sometimes see them represented. All, who were crucified, were invariably nailed to the cross. So universal was this custom that, in the words of an ancient writer: “The cross was made up of two things, the wood and the nails.”
St. Augustine, who was so thoroughly acquainted with all the usages and customs of antiquity, speaking of those crucified, says: “They continued to suffer long after the nails had been hammered through their hands and feet.” And, speaking of the Good Thief, he says: “his body was transfixed by the nails, but not so, his soul. Nor was his mind enfeebled.”
And St. Chrysostom gives the same testimony: “Who can fail to admire (the Good Thief), who, though transfixed with nails, yet preserved his mind and sense untroubled.”
Tradition is unanimous on this point. We refrain from quoting all those who have made themselves its organs, lest in doing so we should over pass our due limits. Suffice it to say that the evidence is so conclusive that we may affirm, with the learned Gretzer, that “it is not possible to understand how crucifixion could be inflicted without nails.”
Now comes the question, What number of nails were used upon Calvary? The number was the same for our Lord and for the two thieves. Now we learn from tradition that our Lord was fastened to the cross with four nails—two nails through His hands, and two through His sacred feet. Lucas Tudensis, surnamed the Solomon of Spain, cites, and comments as follows, the testimony of Innocent III. on the subject: “That four nails were fixed in the body of the Lord is proved by the witness of that great vicar of Christ, doctor of the Church, and implacable foe of heresy, Innocent III., who speaks in these terms: ‘In the Passion of the Lord there were four nails, which served to fasten his hands and feet to the cross.’ What can be clearer than this saying? What more true than these words which come from the throne of God—that is, from the Roman Church, by the mouth of our common Father, Innocent.”
To represent our Lord, or the thieves, fastened to the cross with only three nails, is therefore at variance with the ancient tradition. I may add that it is contrary to reason. For how could one nail be made to go through and hold two feet placed one over the other? The operation would be, if not impossible, at least most difficult, whereas with two nails nothing could be easier. These nails were of a square shape, about five inches long, of a proportionate thickness, with great round heads. It would be hard to imagine anything more dreadful than the agony inflicted by nailing through the hands and feet. One cannot bear to think of, much less to describe, the horrible consequent rending and tearing of the nerves and muscles and delicate fibrous tissues of the flesh.
In speaking of the nails we must not omit to mention the suppedaneum, which, together with them, served to hold the body fixed upon the cross. This suppedaneum was a piece of wood fastened to the lower part of the cross, and which served as a sort of rest for the feet, not sufficient, indeed, perceptibly to diminish the suffering involved in the hanging position of the body, but still giving enough support to prevent the hands being torn in two through the excessive tension momentarily enlarging the wounds of the nails. In this manner the danger was obviated, which otherwise would have been very real, of the victim falling off the cross. By the later Latin writers the suppedaneum was also sometimes called sedile and solistaticulum. Innocent III. speaks of it in these terms: “There were, in the cross of the Lord, four pieces of wood—the standing-up post (or tree); the cross-bar; the stem (or rest), placed beneath (the body); and the title, placed above.”
Once fixed upon this bed of pain, the victims were lifted up so that all the people might enjoy the sight of their torments. The cross, in falling into the hole prepared for it, must have given their whole system such a shock as is frightful to think of. In fixing it with wedges and sods, pounded and hammered roughly together, this torture must have been some time continued, and even increased.
What was the height of the cross? As we have already seen, the height often varied according to the rank of the criminal. But in our Lord's case no distinction seems to have been made between Him and the two thieves. St. Augustine tells us that the three crosses were alike, which later on was proved, at the time of the finding of the cross, when nothing short of a miracle was required, to show which had been sanctified by the Saviour's death and Blood.
An ancient and venerable tradition affirms that our Saviour's Cross was fifteen feet high, and that the arms, or cross-bar, were eight feet from end to end (Gretzer, De Cruce, lib. i. c. i.). These dimensions, though large, do not seem to be anywise exaggerated. If we suppose, as is most probable, that the crosses were sunk about a foot-and-a-half into the ground, the head of our Lord, and consequently also those of His companions, must have been about thirteen-and-a-half feet from the ground. That the cross was of some considerable height seems proved by the Gospel record, since it was necessary for the man, who gave our Lord vinegar to drink to put the sponge containing it upon a reed, so as to reach His sacred Mouth (St. Matth, xxvii. 48; St. Mark, xvi. 36). Whether from the intensity of their blind fury, or out of deference to the Jews, or from fear lest some miraculous intervention should deprive them of their victim, or whether, perhaps, merely in order to make their King appear the most guilty of the three men condemned—certain it is that our Lord was crucified the first, and upon the highest peak of Calvary, the other two crosses being planted on each side of Him, on the slope of the hill. It would appear that, having crucified the Lord of Glory, the bloodthirsty rage of the soldiers and surrounding Jews was almost satisfied, and that they proceeded but slowly with the two other executions. The words of St. Matthew and St. Mark seem to warrant this opinion, which is nowise contradicted by the other two Evangelists. St. Matthew says: “And after they had crucified Him, they divided His garments, casting lots And they sat and watched Him. And they put over His head His cause, written—‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’ Then were crucified with Him two thieves, one on the right hand and one on the left.” (St. Matth, xxvii. 35-38) And St. Mark: “And crucifying Him, they divided His garments, casting lots upon them what every man should take. And it was the third hour, and they crucified Him. And the inscription of His cause was written over, ‘The King of the Jews.’ And with Him they crucify two thieves; the one on His right hand, the other on His left.” (St. Mark, xv. 24-27) It would also seem probable that the two thieves each had their cross surmounted by a tablet, showing forth the cause of their condemnation.
Be this as it may, there can be no doubt that the thieves, like our Lord, were crucified naked. Such was the invariable custom of antiquity. We find confirmatory proof of the custom in Artemidorus, who gives us the following revolting jest:—“Crucifixion is a benefit for a poor man, for he is thereby exalted; but for the rich man it is an evil, because he is crucified naked.”
Of the terrible suffering endured upon the cross it is difficult, nay, impossible, to give any adequate idea. St. Augustin says: “Among all the forms of death there is none worse than this. Wherefore when our pains become most intensely cruel we speak of them as being excruciating, which now is derived from crux (the cross). Hanging suspended on the tree, their hands and feet pierced through with nails, those crucified died a slow and lingering death. To crucify was not to kill. (The victim) lived on some time upon the cross, not because the executioner meant to prolong life, but rather to protract death, that so the agony should not too soon be over.”
And yet, one would almost think the suffering was too intense to last. On the cross, every portion of the body underwent the most fearful torture. Hanging in this manner suspended upon four nails, it was impossible for any part to be rested, or even for one moment eased, from the terrific strain. The nerves were contracted in violent spasms, and the whole frame was convulsed with agony. The body becoming more enfeebled every minute through loss of blood, each member became momentarily more sensible of pain. To all these torments must be added that of a devouring thirst. To be in this state for hours, having no hope but death, and feeling that to be still afar off, to be loaded with the jeers and reproaches and insults of the multitudes, without a single word or look of compassion, without having within him a single consolatory thought, was indeed more than human strength could bear. Can we wonder that the parched, fevered lips of the bad thief should have uttered blasphemies that he should have given himself up to despair?
Blinded with suffering and shame, Dimas and his companion strove to vent their rage upon their fellow Sufferer. His calm, unruffled patience and His silence formed such a strange contrast to their convulsive cries and rage! They had heard it said that He was the Son of God; on His cause, it was written that He was the King of the Jews. At the foot of His cross, they saw a small, but faithful, band of devoted friends. The multitudes, indeed, mocked and blasphemed Him; yet many among the crowd were weeping over His sufferings. If He were in truth the Son of God, why did He not stretch forth His hand to save Himself, and them? “If Thou be the Christ, save Thyself and us!” (St. Luke, xxiii. 39) The entreaty was uttered with scorn and rage; not, alas! in faith. They did not, could not, believe in a God so outraged, so smitten, so despised. Yet salvation was close at hand. But their hearts were too hardened, and it needed a miracle to change and enlighten them. And so they also reviled the Lord, and repeated the taunts and blasphemies of the priests and ancients of the people.
But, now is it true, that both the robbers blasphemed against the Lord? St. Luke speaks only of one: “And one of the robbers who were hanged blasphemed Him, saying, ‘If Thou be Christ, save Thyself and us.’ But the other answering, rebuked him.” (St. Luke, xxiii. 39-40) Upon the authority of this text, several of the Fathers have tried to prove that the bad thief alone blasphemed. The greater number, however, are of a contrary opinion. They quote in proof the words of St. Mark: “And they that were crucified with Him reviled Him,” (St. Mark, xv. 32) and of St. Matthew: “And the selfsame thing the thieves also, that were crucified with Him, reproached Him with.” (St. Matth, xxvii. 44) The learned commentator, Cardinal Hugo, solves the difficulty by explaining the apparent contradiction. “We had rather, and better, say, that in the beginning (Dimas) blasphemed with the other robber, but that Christ our Lord having visited him by His merciful grace, he then repented.”
We find the same interpretation given by Titus, Bishop of Bosra, who wrote in the fourth century. “What is the reason,” he asks, “that St. Matthew and St. Mark affirm that both the thieves reviled Christ, whereas St. Luke only accuses one (of them of this crime)? At first both the thieves blasphemed Him, like the Jews. Maybe they hoped thus to buy their favour, and obtain pardon, or at least some alleviation of their sufferings. But afterwards, being disappointed of the benefit they had looked for, one of the thieves repented, and earnestly exhorted his companion to examine (his past life and acknowledge the justice of his sentence.)”
If therefore, as seems most probable, the Good Thief did blaspheme our Lord, his conversion is all the more striking, and yet more worthy of admiration. We will now endeavour to recount it. It will be as balm to the soul after all the harrowing details we have so long dwelt upon, in this and the preceding chapters.
Conversion of the Good Thief.
Such was, towards the hour of noon, the aspect of Calvary on the great day of our Redemption. On the highest point of the mount was planted the cross of the Son of God; a little lower down, on the slope of the hill, the cross of Dimas on the right hand and that of the bad thief on the left. Round about the three crosses was an open space surrounded and guarded by the Roman troops. At the foot of each cross, a small band of soldiers, who sat and watched. Near them were Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and John, the beloved disciple, and those other women whose mysterious privilege it was to stand by the Cross of Christ. Beyond the open space, a countless multitude were continually coming and going, succeeding each other like the waves of the sea, and all, save the chosen few, blaspheming and reviling the Lord, as they passed by.
Here all is mystery—mystery of suffering, mystery of self-abasement, mystery of insult and shame, mystery also of ingratitude, and, above all, mystery of love! In all these mysteries, the true, perfect, and literal fulfilment of the prophets. Let us strive to enter into yet another mystery, which, although of less moment, is yet full of comfort and instruction. I mean the mysterious significance of the position chosen for the Cross of our Lord, placed as it was between, or in the midst of, the two thieves. Thereby is signified His character of Mediator possessed by none other but Him. For He is our sole Mediator, in Heaven or on earth; during His mortal life, as at the hour of His death; now, henceforth, and for evermore.
“The place of a mediator,” says St. Ephrem, “is a middle place, between, or in the midst. It is from between the two criminals of Calvary, that Jesus makes Himself known as the universal Mediator. Always and everywhere, His place is in the midst. In Heaven, He holds the middle place, between the Father and the Holy Spirit. On earth He is born in a stable, in the midst of angels and men. He is placed as the corner stone, in the midst of the peoples. In the ancient covenant, He is in the midst of the law and the prophets, whose Lord, He is. In the new covenant, we see Him on Mount Thabor, with Moses and Elias, He Himself in the midst. On Calvary, He shows Himself again, but in the midst of two thieves; and to the Good Thief He reveals His Godhead. He is the Eternal Judge, placed between this present and the future life, between the quick and the dead; source alike of the life we now enjoy, which is for a time, and of that never-ending life, which is to everlasting.”
And what does Christ do, in this midst? “He does two things,” replies St. Cyril; “He confounds the wicked and protects the good. He does, for all time, and among all nations, what the pillar of the cloud did in the wilderness, when it prevented the two camps from joining in fight; showing itself as a dark cloud to the Egyptians and hindering their advance, but as a pillar of fire to the Israelites, enlightening the night. Divine Providence had so willed that, on Calvary, Christ should be in the midst of the robbers, of whom one is converted and saved; the other repents not and is condemned. The type and figure, these, of the elect and the lost.”
Now, it is matter of faith, that at the last day the just will be on the right of the Sovereign Judge, and the unjust on His left. “And all nations shall be gathered together before Him, and He shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats: and He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on His left.” (St. Matth, xxv. 32,33)
So that nothing might be wanting to complete the likeness of the Calvarian type, the Good Thief was therefore placed on the right of our Lord, and the bad thief on His left. True, that there is no mention of their relative positions to be found in the Gospel, but this, like many other precious details, has been preserved to us by tradition. The Fathers give a unanimous witness to its truth. We will content ourselves with quoting St. Augustine and St. Leo.
St. Augustine says: “Note well, and you will see that the Cross, itself, became a judgment-seat. In the midst, is the Judge; on the one side, the robber who believes and is set free; on the other, the robber who blasphemes and is condemned. Already (the Lord) showed forth what He will do with the living and the dead, who shall likewise be placed, some on the right hand and some on the left. The Good Thief is the figure of those, who shall be on the right hand; the bad thief of those on the left. Judged Himself (the Son of Man) threatens judgment.”
And, later on, St. Leo, the Vicar of Him crucified, tells us: “Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is fastened to the Cross which He had Himself borne, and with Him likewise are crucified two thieves, one on His right hand and the other on His left; so that, even on this gibbet, that should be, in some sort shown forth, which is to take place at the final judgment; (I mean) the separation (of the just from the unjust). The faith of the believing robber, is the figure of those saved; and the wickedness of the blasphemer, the type of those condemned.”
Long had the Saviour hung upon the cross, amid the most fearful agony of body and soul. To the insults and derision and blasphemous mockeries of the Jews, and their princes and priests, He had hitherto opposed a sublime and unbroken silence. But now fearing, as it were, lest the divine vengeance should overtake their crime, He cries aloud for mercy towards those who had shown Him none: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”
Scarce had these life-giving words been uttered, when Dimas ceased to blaspheme. All the crowd had heard them, but he at least had understood their meaning, and he, on the instant, sought and obtained their fruit. He was not content with repenting himself, but turning, he exhorted his companion to do likewise. “And he rebuked him, saying: 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.” (St. Luke, xxiii. 40,41)
This is indeed a wonderful change, that he, who, a moment before, was blaspheming and reviling, should now rebuke his companion for doing the selfsame thing. Where, Dimas, shall we find a clue to the mystery? What miracle has converted thee? Who has revealed to thee the innocence and the dignity of thy Fellow Sufferer? The Lord is not come down from the cross, yet now, in truth, thou believest that He is the Son of God? Thou hailest as King, Him Who is dying upon the tree of shame. And He, the reproach, the outcast of the people—Who, stripped and naked and covered with wounds, had become, as it were, a worm and no man—He replies to thy homage by promising thee a place in His kingdom: “And he said to Jesus: ‘Lord, remember me when Thou shalt come into thy Kingdom.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Amen, I say to thee this day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.’ ” (St. Luke, xxiii. 42, 43)
Full of wonder and admiration, St. Leo asks again: “Whence has (Dimas) received his faith? Who has explained the mysterious doctrine? What preacher has inflamed him (with love)? For he now confesses, as his Lord and King, One who (outwardly) seems to be no more than his fellow-sufferer?”
Ah! with rare instinct the Good Thief had, as it were, penetrated the disguise and recognized the features of his Companion. He now strives to seize upon His riches, as he had so often, in his past life, plundered the goods of those who came in his way. “Even on the cross,” says St. Chrysostom, “he did not forget his former cunning, but secured as his booty the kingdom (of heaven).” And, with one voice, all the Fathers praise him for this new act of spoliation. “This happy robber,” says St. Ambrose, “meeting the Lord on his journey, strives to possess himself of His treasure, according to his usual practice.”
St. Augustine breaks forth into rapturous praise of our saint: “Blessed is this thief; yea, I say, blessed, in that he no longer spreads his snares alongside the road, but takes hold of Christ, who is Himself the way, from whom also he obtains life by a new sort of robbery, and through death he is confirmed in everlasting possession of his spoils.”
Let us not lose a similar echo from one of our great Christian poets, whose voices, unhappily, are heard by so few. In a song overflowing with the noblest enthusiasm, Sedulius says of the Good Thief that “he seized, as plunder, even the kingdom of Heaven.” Thus the brigand's nature remains the same, although so marvellously changed! But how did Dimas recognize his kingly Fellow-Traveller? Whence did he obtain knowledge of His treasures? From whom did he learn this new and unfailing mode of attack? Let us entreat of the Divine Victim, grace, in order to the right understanding of the mystery. If we ask with an earnest, humble spirit, He, our Saviour, will not fail to show us these first-fruits of His redemption.
The Good Thief's claim to Martyrdom.
We have spoken of the soul of Dimas as of a most perfect specimen of moral beauty — a very masterpiece. Surely, it is not possible that the most precious gem of all should be wanting to his crown; that gem, the price of which is greater, than the united value of the rest; a gem which is like the pearl brought from afar; or like that treasure of which the Gospel speaks, which, when he had found, the merchant went and for joy thereof, sold all his goods and bought it? I mean the glory of martyrdom—a glory so great that it raises the least of the faithful far above priests and missionaries, confessors and pontiffs, and even Doctors of the Church. Some would have us believe that this glory, at least, is not to be found in our saint. We maintain that it is. Let us, however, critically examine the question.
According to the teaching of Catholic theology martyrdom requires three conditions: 1st, that death be suffered, or such torments as would naturally cause death. 2ndly, that the suffering should be voluntary. 3rdly, that it be borne in defence of the faith, or of some other of the Christian virtues. From these premises, many would be inclined to conclude that Dimas did not suffer martyrdom. And certainly, at first sight, it would seem that his sufferings were not voluntary, and that they were not borne in defence of faith or any other Christian virtue, but rather as the penalty for sin.
But Cyprian, the great martyr-saint of Carthage, answers these objections, in the following terms: “In the passion of this thief we have to consider two distinct periods—two men, as it were, and two sorts of blood. The blood shed before the advent of faith was the blood of a thief; but that shed afterwards, the blood of a Christian. The blood of the thief was but a guilt-stained sacrifice; but the blood of the Christian, shed in testimony of the faith—as a witness that Christ is truly the Son of God—that blood, was the blood of a confessor (i.e., martyr).”
St. Augustine repeats and adopts the opinion of his illustrious colleague. “The thief who before was not a disciple of Christ, but became a confessor upon the cross, is numbered. by the holy Cyprian among the martyrs. . . . . To have confessed Christ upon the cross, weighed as much in the scale of merit as if he had been crucified for Christ's sake. Thus we find the martyr's privilege in him, who believed in Christ, when the future martyrs had all fled away and left Him.”
And, in another place, the same great Doctor says: “The thief had not yet been called, and was already elect; not yet a servant, he became a friend; a master, without having served as disciple; one moment a thief, the next a confessor. So that although he began his sufferings as a robber, he ended them as a martyr.”
We find the same thought expressed by St. Jerome. In one of his letters to St. Paulinus he says: “The thief exchanged the cross for Paradise; and turned the penalty of murder into a glorious martyrdom.”
And St. Hilary speaks of our Lord as “promising Paradise to this his martyr.”
And St. Bernard, thus: “O blessed thief—or rather, not so much thief as martyr and confessor—thou didst voluntarily accept what necessity had forced upon thee, and didst change chastisement into glory, and the cross into a triumph! In thee, most blessed confessor and martyr, Christ gathered what was left of faith, amid the general barrenness of the world. Thou on the cross didst take the place of Peter; and in the house of Caiaphas, Peter played the thief. And this did he so long as, hiding what he really was, he outwardly denied his Divine Master. For which reason thou didst precede him into Paradise. For He Who received thee upon the cross having become thy chief and guide, took thee with Him; and, the same day of His entry into His Kingdom, He introduced there also His faithful and glorious soldier.”
The authorities I have quoted above are assuredly numerous and venerable enough to place beyond doubt our saint's title to martyrdom. But because they all found it upon this, that he suffered the torments of the cross—at least in part—in testimony to our Lord's Divinity, I will add a few words upon another suffering which, in the opinion of many, was inflicted upon him solely for that cause. I speak of the crurifragium, or breaking of the legs. […]
It is unnecessary to add that this torture was frequently made use of against the Christian martyrs. The Acts of the Martyrdom of St. Adrian, among many others, give an account of it, such as may serve to convey some idea both of the cruelty of the imperial tyrants, and of the glorious constancy of the confessors of the faith.
What we have said is, we think, sufficient to prove that the crurifragium had no necessary connection whatever with crucifixion. This latter torment was so terrible that it was not lightly put an end to by the infliction of another torture which was almost instantaneously fatal. The ancient law-givers were, on the contrary, anxious to prolong as much as possible the sufferings of those crucified, so that the lesson of terror should be more striking to on-lookers, and consequently, as they thought, more efficacious. For their sufferings to be put an end to any sooner than usual it was necessary that there should be some grave reason—such as a public feast-day, or the birthday of the ruling prince; sometimes, also, the prayer of their relations or friends, if they happened to be persons of consequence—otherwise those crucified were left hanging upon the cross until their bodies fell into corruption.
With the Jews, as with the Gentiles, crucifixion and crurifragium were two entirely separate methods of inflicting death. In that passage of Deuteronomy which treats of crucifixion, not a word is said of any further punishment. On the contrary, that passage itself forms by its silence a negative proof that the crurifragium was not inflicted. Here is the text: “When a man hath committed a crime for which he is to be punished with death, and, being condemned to die, is hanged on a gibbet, his body shall not remain upon the tree, but shall be buried the same day, for he is accursed of God that hangeth on a tree: and thou shalt not defile thy land, which the Lord thy God shall give thee in possession.” (Deuteronomy, xxi. 22, 23)
The breaking of the criminal's legs was therefore nowise ordered by the law, nor does it appear to have been authorized by any later custom. As to what took place on Calvary, let us listen to the Commentary of Origen, which is especially valuable on all these points of detail, its illustrious author having been so well versed in all the customs of the East. Living as he did in the times of persecution, it is needless to say that he was thoroughly acquainted with every form of capital punishment. On the words of St. John—“Then the Jews (because it was the Parasceve), that the bodies might not remain upon the cross on the Sabbath day (for that was a great Sabbath day), besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away;” (St. John, xx. 31)—on these words, the great commentator remarks: “These things were done at the time of Christ's condemnation. That Pilate, in commanding that the body of Christ should be broken, was not acting in accordance with the usual custom, seems evident from the very wording of the text; (they) besought Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. Would it have been necessary to pray and beseech him for leave to do this if it must have been done in the ordinary course?”
Now there were, as we have already said, certain cases in which the Romans allowed the bodies to be taken down from the cross before the ordinary time, and we can well understand that the great paschal feast of the Jews should have been thought sufficient reason to warrant this unusual procedure. But in these cases death was generally hastened, not by breaking the legs of the criminal, but by piercing his heart with a lance. That Pilate had given no such order in regard to our Lord was probably, as Origen suggests, owing to his desire of conciliating the Jews. For which reason, also, he allowed the crurifragium at their request, and hence his wonder on hearing that Christ was already dead. He knew that those crucified lingered on for hours, and even days, and therefore he hesitated to allow Joseph of Arimathea to take down the Lord's body, until he had learnt the truth from the centurion.
The providence of God overruled the order obtained from Pilate for breaking the legs of our Lord, as says the Evangelist: “that the Scripture might be fulfilled, Ye shall not break a bone of Him.” (St. John, xix. 36; Exodus, xii. 46; Numbers, ix. 12) The same mysterious counsel, foretold in prophecy, explains the reason why the Saviour's side was pierced by the lance. We may also, in part, attribute this last blow to the custom which obtained of thus killing those who were taken down from the cross on the very day of their crucifixion. But this custom, the reason of which was to ensure death, was not in itself sufficient motive for the blow, seeing that our Lord was already dead, when He received it.
A trace of this custom long survived in the criminal code of Europe. During the Middle Ages (and in some countries almost down to our own time) to break a criminal upon the wheel was not an uncommon punishment, but generally the executioner began by giving him a blow somewhere near the heart, which had the effect of making him almost, if not quite, unconscious of the agony caused by the instrument of torture. But in some cases, where the criminal was more than ordinarily guilty, the blow upon the heart was only given as the finishing stroke. To this custom, we owe the term coup de grâce, which is so often used without any notion of its penal origin.
The question remains, Why did the Jews, in asking to have the bodies taken down from the cross, also pray that their legs might be broken, instead of allowing death to be inflicted in the usual and more merciful way, by means of the lance? The answer is easily found in their blind hatred of our Lord, and also, perhaps, not less in their furious rage at the boldness with which Dimas had proclaimed His innocence and their consequent guilt. When Pilate had written the Saviour's title—King of the Jews— they had done their utmost to persuade him to change it, but in vain. They were angry, but had no means of expressing their anger. But when one of the thieves dared to acknowledge the Kingly character of their Victim, and by his words to make it known to all the people, then, indeed, was their wrath tenfold enkindled, and they determined to be revenged. Therefore they went in to Pilate and “besought that their legs might be broken.” The blasphemies of the bad thief might well have exempted him from further punishment at their hands, but they could not make any difference to him without further explanation to Pilate and from this they shrank. Besides, with men so lost to truth, so utterly carried away by their passions, one injustice the more would seem but a small thing.
That revenge was the intention of the Jews in asking for the crurifragium, seems to have been the general opinion of the Fathers. Commenting on the words of St. John—“The soldiers therefore came, and they broke the legs of the first and of the other that was crucified with Him—Luke of Burgos says: “The first was the thief who was crucified on the right hand, and who had been justified through the blood of Christ.”
“To what purpose these minute details?” asks St. Gregory. “Is it possible for us to believe that they were given, as it were, accidentally, without some deep meaning. If so, it would have been simpler to state merely that they broke the legs of the two thieves. But in the words, “They broke the legs of the first and of the other is hidden a mysterious sense.”
This sense is given us by the learned Padre Sylveira, on the authority of Euthymius: “By the first is signified the thief crucified on the right hand, and purified in the Blood of Christ. As the just is ever the first to endure torments, so they began by breaking the legs of the converted thief, because of the hate they felt towards one who was a confessor of Christ.”
Whence the same writer concludes that Dimas was truly a martyr, and that the Fathers of the Church were fully justified in giving him this glorious title. “First they broke the legs of this blessed thief, and that with great rage and fury. Wherefore, as Dimas patiently suffered this on account of the sublime testimony he had given to the innocence and kingship of Christ, I do not hesitate to speak of him as a martyr, in common with the Holy Fathers.”
Nevertheless, historic truth compels me to admit that there have always been two opinions on the subject of St. Dimas' claim to the martyr's crown. In the last century [18th century] the question was brought before the Congregation of Rites. Their decision is characteristic of the extreme prudence observed at Rome in relation to all doubtful matters. Without in the slightest degree blaming, or even disapproving, the opinion of those Fathers and Doctors of the Church who give to our saint the title of martyr, the Sacred Congregation decided that the title was not to be inserted in the liturgy, and that the office of the Good Thief was to be that of a Confessor non Pontifex; and, to avoid all possibility of cavil or criticism, the traditional name of Dimas was also omitted.
The Good Thief's Reward.
We have already seen that Dimas did all, and more than all, which is required of a repentant sinner. He had examined his past life, and had confessed his sins with the deepest sorrow, and, humbly and lovingly, he had turned his heart towards God. He had done this with great earnestness and sincerity, and with heroic courage. And so, all barriers being done away, the grace of God entered into and flooded his soul, even as the light of day pours into a dark room, when once the windows thereof are opened. Nay, more, the divine Mercy received the thief as a mother would receive a long-lost child, as the father of the prodigal received his son.
My words are all too weak to be able fittingly to paint this mystery of love and forgiveness. What shall I say, what analogy find, in anywise to express it? Let us take the case of a criminal condemned to death. Alone, bound in chains, he awaits his last hour at the bottom of some noisome dungeon. His whole life passes before him in review—a procession of grisly phantoms, not a thing which gives him comfort. His execution is not yet begun; but already he is tormented by a twofold agony—remorse for the past, fear for the future. At last the gaoler appears and leads him forth and gives him over to the minister of justice, at whose hands he is to receive the penalty of death. But if, on his way to execution, this unhappy wretch were to meet his king, and be forgiven his crimes, and have his sentence remitted, what words could tell his joy and gratitude?
A thousand-fold greater must have been the happiness of Dimas when he heard from our Lord the gracious promise: “This day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.” Let us weigh well the sense of those Divine words, that we may understand, to some extent at least, the joy they produced in him to whom they were addressed. The thief heard in them the certainty of pardon, grace, and everlasting glory. How much was included in that single word pardon! His whole life had been one long sin. He had grown old in wickedness, and had been condemned of God, and hated and loathed by all his fellow-men. And now, in a moment, he was rescued from the jaws of hell, forgiven all his sins, cleansed from every stain, freed from the pangs of remorse and shame. With these words of pardon, the sweet healing balm of peace was poured into his wounded soul, and joy, such as he had never felt before or even dreamt of.
The Good Thief was pardoned. But might he not be troubled with the thought of, perhaps, forfeiting his pardon? Might he not fear to fall again into the abyss out of which he had just been rescued? But no! the words of the Saviour left no room for doubt or fear. With an oath, He had confirmed them. No more falling away was possible for Dimas. That very day, he was to enter Paradise.
In truth, nothing could be stronger than the words used by our Lord. The word Amen (so be it) is never made use of in Scripture, except upon the most solemn occasions. Here, it conveyed to Dimas the certainty of his salvation, by assuring him of the grace of perseverance, even unto death. But, as though this one word were not enough, our Lord deigns to repeat it twice. As says St. Ambrose: “The Gospel shows clearly that the word Amen is the highest asseveration ever made use of by our Lord to confirm (His prophecies and promises). It has even greater force where it is repeated, as it is written, ‘Amen, Amen, I say to thee, this day shalt thou be with Me in Paradise.’ ”
Through these words not only did Dimas obtain the pardon of his past life, and the gracious assurance of his future perseverance in good, but also the promise of an immediate entry into the glory of his Lord. That very day he was to enter into Life, into joys untold, into happiness without end. It is indeed impossible for us to say what must have been the intensity of his grateful love toward Christ in the midst of this torrent of heavenly delight.
One thing, at least, we may safely say; that his supernatural happiness was so great as to make him utterly forgetful of all physical pain; so that, to use the words of one of his chief panegyrists: “The thought of his agony was washed away by the overflowing of his great love.” Like that other illustrious convert, St. Paul, Dimas was able to say in truth: “I exceedingly abound with joy in all tribulations.” (2 Cor, vii. 4)
Forerunner of the martyrs, the Good Thief experienced upon the cross what they also felt amid their sufferings. He likewise might have said: “Never have I assisted at so glorious a feast.” But this joy amid tribulation, great as it was, was not all the Saviour promised to his beloved confessor. He held out to him a happiness which should be perfect and unmixed; and this, not at some future, distant time, but at once, that very day. The Fathers of the Church cannot contain their admiration at the treasures of tenderness and love contained in these life-giving words. Let us hearken to St. Augustin as the spokesman of them all.
“The Good Thief had said: ‘Remember me,’ not now, but ‘when Thou shalt come into Thy kingdom. I have sinned too deeply to be worthy of immediate happiness. This would be too much; let me suffer yet awhile, at least until Thine entry into glory. Do Thou forgive me then.’ Thus the thief strove to put off his reward. But the Lord would not have it so. That very day, He bade him enter into the joys of Paradise.”
“See what loving-kindness!” exclaims a cotemporary of St. Bernard's. “He does not merely say, ‘Thou shalt be in Paradise,’ or ‘Thou shalt be with the angels;’ but ‘Thou shalt be with Me!’ ” Yea, thou shalt see, in the glory of His Majesty, Him Whom thou hast so nobly confessed in His infirmity. Thou hast suffered with Me on the cross, now shalt thou share with Me the delights of My kingdom. Neither shalt thou have long to wait for thy reward. This day shalt thou enjoy it. “Such is the goodness of our sweet Saviour that, without delay, He hears and answers prayer. He promises, and at once He gives.” Who then, I ask, shall dare to doubt His love? Who shall despair of forgiveness? Ay, we also have tasted the sweetness of Thy name, and our hope shall not be confounded, for never dost Thou abandon those who put their trust in Thee! […]
Now we come to a further question: What was that Paradise of which our Lord promised immediate possession to the Good Thief? It was certainly not that place which we generally mean when we speak of Heaven; for we know that our Saviour Himself did not go up there until forty days after His resurrection. But the Heavenly Paradise is not solely the abode of the just made perfect. It is not so much a place as a state. He dwells in Heaven, to whom it is given to enjoy the Beatific Vision. Our Lord promised Dimas that he should be with Him, that day in Paradise. The being with Him was what, in itself, constituted Paradise. Hence, we may infer that the soul of the Good Thief accompanied our Lord in His descent into Limbo.
“We shall be the better able to understand the sense (of these words of our Lord)” . . . . says St. Augustine, “if we take them as having been spoken by Christ, as God, rather than as man As man, Christ was to be that day in the tomb, as regarded His body, and in hell, as regarded His soul: but as God, Christ is always everywhere. . . . . Wheresoever Paradise may be, all the Blessed are there, when they are together with Him Who is everywhere.”
And St. Thomas speaks in the same sense: “Christ, by going straightways down to hell, set free the saints who were detained there; not, however, by at once leading them out of the place of hell, but by making the light of His glory to shine upon them, even in hell itself. For so it was fitting that His soul should abide in hell, so long as His body was left in the grave. . . . That word of the Lord (‘This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise’) must therefore be understood not of an earthly or corporeal Paradise, but of that spiritual paradise in which all may be, said to be, who are in the enjoyment of the Divine Glory. Hence, as to place, the thief went down with Christ into hell, that he might be with Christ, as it was said to him: ‘Thou shalt be with Me in Paradise;’ but as to reward, he was in Paradise, for he there tasted and enjoyed the divinity of Christ, together with the other saints.”
“Was the Good Thief the first to be admitted to the delights of the Beatific Vision, before all the ancient patriarchs and prophets who so long had been waiting the coming of the Messiah? That this was the case seems to be the opinion of many of the Fathers. St. Chrysostom, speaking of Dimas, says: “Our Lord was not ashamed that he should be the first to enter Paradise.” St. Augustin, St. Eulogius, and others speak in like manner.
If we take the words of these great Doctors in their literal sense, we must conclude therefrom, that the Good Thief was given the enjoyment of the Beatific Vision from the very moment, when our Lord said to him the words: This day, shalt thou be with me in Paradise; for otherwise he would not have been the first—for we know that our Lord died before Dimas, and that his soul went down to Limbo, bringing with it the joys of Heaven to those who were there already.
However this may be, we may say without doubt or hesitation that, from the first moment of his death, the Good Thief came into everlasting possession of happiness far surpassing all that the human heart could wish for, of beauty, of sweetness, and of glory; delights such as eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, nor hath it entered into the mind of man to conceive.
from: Life of the Good Thief, from the French of Mgr. Gaume, Protonatory Apostolic. Done into English by M. De Lisle, 1882; and
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
Related Links –
1. The Passiontide and Holy Week.
2. The Holy Season of Lent.
3. Laws of Fasting and Abstinence.
4. Perfect Contrition.
5. The Seven Penitential Psalms.
6. Devotion to our Lord’s Passion.
7. Devotion to our Lady’s Sorrows.
O Blessed Thief, Confessor of Christ, pray for us.