Good Friday Portraits pt 4: The Thief

Digna factis recipimus.

‘We have received the just reward for our deeds.’ But this man next to me… He’s done nothing wrong. His sentence is written there over his thorn-crowned head; it reads ‘King of the Jews.’ That’s not a crime. Is it? What is His crime? His accusers are many; all of us, I suppose, at one time or another. We of broken hearts and weary eyes, we look at this world and what we’ve made of it, and our insane but endlessly repeated verdict comes forth anew: God is guilty.

It makes me wonder: did we kill Him because He claimed to be God and we bridled at the blasphemous lie? Or did we kill Him because He claimed to be God… and we believed Him?

They call me Dismas. You’ve seen me in paintings and such, one of two thieves hanging beside Him. To your eyes, I’m part of the background. But not to Him. To Him I was worth one of His very last tortured breaths. And I was a few feet away when God died.

Albrecht Altdorfer, Crucifixion

Gestas — the one over on the other side — he joined in the mockery. It’s not that I can’t relate. Hanging on a Cross, dying in front of a hypocritical audience, you don’t have to reach very far for all the hate and bitterness and rage you could ever hold. But it all seems so pointless: the judgment, the bitterness, the rage. It got me on this Cross. It certainly can’t get me off it.

My rebellion was a small and impotent thing, really. I took from them what wasn’t mine. I was caught by one stronger. That’s life, I would’ve said a few minutes ago. You take what you can, when and where you can, until you get taken. You do unto others before they do unto you. That’s life.

And that’s how I ended up on this Cross. Digna factis recipimus.

But here in this man I see the real rebellion, the one I fell so far short of.

I spoke words of comfort and request. “Jesus, remember me when you come into your Kingdom.” Some have wondered if I was asking in full faith and sincerity, or if — just maybe — I was playing along with a dying crazy man’s fantasy, trying to comfort a poor delusional soul in his last moments. Or did I see what the centurion saw and recognize: truly this is the Son of God? How odd, the way He unites people, either for Him or against Him. Who else could make allies of Pharisees and Sadducees, of Pilate and Herod? Who else could make me and that centurion — my executioner — understand and agree?

Gestas, over there, he’s still mocking, still raging, still locked in that impotent rebellion against us and against the oppressors. Against the whole damnable system and all of us who each, in our own way, did our part to make this bloody spectacle, and most of all, against the God He holds responsible for all of it. It’s easy for me to understand. I was like him until a minute ago.

And then something beautiful happened as my blood trickled out and my breath became shallower and shallower: I gave up. I gave up hating. I gave up my ego, gave up pretending that I’m the righteous victim and that God is at fault. Because there God is, and the one thing I understand in this whole horrible scene is that He is not at fault. Gestas and the mockers, I and the centurion, we all fall into the only two positions: either God is guilty or we are. Me, well, I know about guilt. And with strained effort I lift my eyes to look around one last time… and I only see one innocent man.

And the moment I admitted that my sins were mine, He made them His. This one innocent man. How about that? Turns out, He got here the same way I did. He took what wasn't His. From me. From all of us.

Nothing changed. I’m still on this Cross. I’m still dying.

But everything changed. Because my Cross is His now, and I am His. He said so: “Today, you will be with me…” You’d think it would feel tragic, like coming to realize the truth too late, realizing it only now in my final moments. But it doesn’t feel tragic. This is how it happens, how everything changed. If this is how it happens, I choose it, I embrace it, I even rejoice in it. It’s getting dark now. Today is a Good day. Today, I will be with Him.


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