Luke 23:26-43 The Sudden Enlightenment of St. Dismas


Now we come to the passion, and I feel tempted, like a great many Christian writers before me, to start talking about atonement theories, spilling ink, or in this case bytes, over that cosmic somethingthat happened when Jesus died on the cross. But my intent with this blog has been to present Luke’s gospel through a contemplative lens, and heady atonement theories sometimes distract us from the love affair that the soul has with God, which is, to me, the great subject and interest of the Christian life.  So I invite you, dear reader, to go read some of the many, many books, articles, and blog posts that are interested in atonement theory, and then return here, if you’d like, for a strange little digression into St. Dismas, the penitent thief.

The contemplative life is not really a progression, although sometimes those who talk about it make it seem like it is.  It is true that as we grow in prayer and understanding, we feel ourselves transformed. But transformation can also happen in an instant, since all transformation is a gift of God’s grace, and God can decide to grace us or not at any moment. As I’ve written, I think there’s a purpose to our transformation. We are transformed so that we can live within the Kingdom of God, which means seeing all of creation with God’s eyes, caring and hurting for it with God’s compassion, and rejoicing in it with God’s joy. We listen to John the Baptist and Jesus when they tell us to be of a new mind, to let the old, broken habits die and to hold onto new habits lightly, always waiting for the presence of the Holy Spirit to disrupt us and letting processes of forgiveness and community remake us. I believe that this transformation is the purpose that our souls were made for, and we can learn to give ourselves to this purpose as we live out our lives. And yet it’s striking to me that the penitent thief who dies with Jesus achieves this transformation in an instant, by doing nothing more than attesting to the innocence of Jesus as he dies on the cross.

A number of years ago I was in Tokyo, and found myself looking at a sixteenth century scroll painting by Kano Motonobu in the National Museum. The painting depicted Xiangyen Zhixian sweeping with a broom. It captures this zen master moments before a roof tile falls off a nearby building and causes his sudden enlightenment. That’s all it took for Xiangyen Zhixian. One moment he’s sweeping and unenlightened. The next moment the roof tile has fallen, and he is enlightened. The same is true of Dismas, the penitent thief. One moment he’s dying on a cross for crimes he knows he’s committed. He says a few words to Christ. The next moment he is alive within the Kingdom of God, and his fear and suffering is transformed into deep love and compassion. His soul is alive with God, and he dies, like Christ, in a moment of exquisite peace, the grace of God’s created cosmos blowing through his mind, the presence of the divine burning through the fibers of his dying body.

The Christian tradition has given Dismas a name and called him a saint for this and this alone.  He allows us to understand that anyone can come into the Kingdom of God at any time, that God’s love is so vast that it can sweep up the righteous and the unrighteous alike. Many of us, myself included, are on long, patient journeys, seeking and loving God and giving thanks for those glimmers of the Kingdom that offer us deep consolation.  But if we ever encounter someone who has simply leapt into sainthood, we should not be suspicious of her, or deride her. Perhaps suffering has allowed for that leap, and perhaps not. Perhaps repentance has allowed for it, and perhaps not. Maybe it’s best to realize that the leap itself is repentance, metanioa, and that we can rejoice, with God, in the repentance of any person, anywhere, at any time.