Christian tradition has long given personal designations to honored but nameless characters from Scripture and folklore. Perhaps the most obvious honorees are Anna and Joachim, parents of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Neither parent is even mentioned in Scripture, yet St. Anne especially has a good number of devotees. Also nameless in Scripture, or not even mentioned in Scripture, are Saints Longinus and Veronica, both popularly integral to the Passion accounts. It was Longinus’ spear that wounded Christ’s side and Veronica’s veil that wiped Christ’s brow.
Piety certainly demanded that they be given proper names. These two honored but obscure souls quite curiously adorn the central nave of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, along with St. Andrew and St. Helena. The common bond of the four is the relics possessed by the Holy See at the time of the basilica’s erection: Longinus’ spear, Veronica’s veil, Andrew’s skull and Helena’s true Cross and nails. Another anonymous Scriptural figure is the crucified but repentant thief central to the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King.
St. Matthew’s Passion account flatly narrates, “The insurgents who had been crucified with Him kept taunting Him in the same way.” But St. Luke, true to his Gospel theme of mercy, relates much more sensitively, “One of the criminals hanging in crucifixion blasphemed Him: ‘Aren’t you the Messiah? Then save yourself and us.’ But the other one rebuked him: ‘Have you no fear of God, seeing you are under the same sentence? We deserve it, after all. We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ He then said, “Jesus, remember me when you enter upon your reign.’ And Jesus replied, ‘I assure you: this day you will be with me in paradise.’” Note that this encounter is the only time in Scripture when Jesus is addressed without a title. No master, no teacher, no Son of David, no Rabboni — just plain Jesus. Jesus’ close identity with down and out humankind could not be more effectively stated.
Pious tradition accords this good thief (who was more likely a revolutionary, hence the penalty of crucifixion) the name Dismas. In the Roman martyrology, St. Dismas is even accorded a feast day on March 25th. The bad thief, too, is given a name: Gesmas; he certainly has no feast day. An even more elaborate tradition recalls that Dismas and Gesmas encountered the Holy Family on its flight into Egypt during Christ’s infancy. Dismas convinced Gesmas to forego robbing Joseph and his bride and son. Perhaps the promise of instant paradise from the Cross was a belated reward for this consideration.
Amid all the tender tales and touching accounts related to Christ’s final hours is the dreadful but undeniable fact that the man Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, was about to die one of the cruelest deaths in all history. The horror of Christ’s Passion and death raises the legitimate question of God the Father’s complicity in the death of his Son. How could the good God — God who is goodness itself — destine or even allow his innocent Son to die such a cruel death? In his recent book “Salvation,” author Michael Barber indicates that only the supreme sacrifice of Jesus’ very life could display the true nature and depth of Christ’s Sonship. God could have redeemed mankind by some other noble gesture, some other tribute to filial duty. But no other action would have displayed the full extent of Christ’s fidelity to his Father more than the giving of his very life out of obedience to the Father’s will. Christ on the Cross clearly held nothing back; his deference was total; his submission was complete. Christ was the supreme and eternal Son, dutiful to the end. On the Cross, Christ reveals the true extent not only of his own Sonship but what Sonship will entail for every son and daughter of the heavenly Father.
Author Barber quotes Christ’s familiar words, “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it (Mt. 16:25).”
Like Jesus, the Christian in every era must hold nothing back from the Father; he or she must literally lose him or herself in obedience, in service, in devotion to the Father and His Will. Men and women who are authentically Christian, that is, Christlike, will surrender every aspect of their being to the Father’s plan for themselves and for history. Only then will the Christian people truly be “sons in the Son,” sons and daughters conformed to Christ even to the shedding of their blood, if need be. Most Christians will avoid actual martyrdom. But every Christian has daily to lose him or herself in total obedience to revealed Truth and to authentic love, that is, to God. Only then is the believer a true Christian, a true son in the Son, a true sharer in the divine nature through Christ.