But while Jesus sets out towards Calvary’s hill, another man is beginning a similar journey. We remember this man as a thief, a bandit, but it’s possible that’s a quirk of translation and that he was just as much a political prisoner as Jesus himself. What you call this man depends on how you view his cause: if you think the Jews had a point and were right to violently rebel against Rome, then he’s a freedom fighter; if you think, say, stabbing tax collectors and collaborators to death in a dark alley somewhere is indefensible then maybe he’s a terrorist.
Either way, he’s facing death, heading towards a cross and nails just like Jesus. We don’t really know his name, although tradition knows him as Dismas; we don’t know what brought him to this point, what got him into criminality, how he got radicalised. His life, like thousands of others, was lived in parallel with those who’d go on to become more famous, never intersecting ’til the last possible moment.
His anonymity is the power of his story. Two thieves hang either side of Jesus, one spitting curses, the other seeking mercy, two responses to Jesus in the face of infinity. Dismas, either through second-hand knowledge or the insight of a dying man, recognises the King beside him. Maybe, for a criminal fighting for every gasp of breath, the Crown of Thorns was a prophecy.
“Remember me when you come into your Kingdom.”
And Jesus, lungs screaming, turns to Dismas and promises that they’ll walk side by side into a different world, whispering hope through the pain.
Dismas is immortalised in that moment of grace, his image part of so many Easter scenes, his name even running through cult films. His hanging body comes to be an embodiment of mercy, forgiveness overriding everything so that while we don’t know the nature of his crimes, we do know where he found himself after taking that final walk.
And as we watch, grace threads its way around the nails and the wounds and the grain of the wood as Jesus looks at the man next to him and remembers.
The other posts in this series can be found here.