Friday, April 22, 2011

What Was the Best Day of Dismas’ Life?

(Good Friday 2011: This homily was given on April 22, 2011 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, RI, by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 52:13-53:12; also read the Passion Narrative of St. Luke.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Good Friday 2011]

What was the best day of Dismas’ life?

Dismas, of course, was the so-called “Good Thief,” who had a change of heart as he hung on the cross next to Jesus on Good Friday. The Bible indicates that at first both he and the other criminal verbally abused our Lord after they were crucified. As we are told in Matthew 27: 44, “The insurgents who had been crucified with [Jesus] kept taunting him in the same way [that is, in the same way that the chief priests and scribes and elders were taunting him].”

However, at some point during the 3 hours that he hung there with Jesus, the Good Thief experienced a genuine conversion of heart.


Well, we don’t know for sure. The Bible doesn’t explicitly tell us. One of my theories is that he was deeply impressed by how Jesus responded to the verbal attacks that were being hurled at him. I’m sure that most people who were crucified by the Romans in the first century did NOT respond in such a loving way to the insults of those passing by! They probably answered those insults with a lot of words that cannot be repeated from this pulpit.

Jesus, on the other hand, responded with love and with silence—the silence of a lamb being led to the slaughterhouse (to use Isaiah’s famous image that we heard in today’s first reading).

I also believe that Dismas was deeply moved by the way Jesus forgave his murderers. Contrary to what many people believe, forgiveness is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. You don’t need any inner strength at all to let anger and unforgiveness get the better of you. That’s easy—all you have to do is let your negative emotions take over!

Only a strong person can sincerely forgive.

And it takes a doubly-strong person to forgive the people who have harmed him while he’s in the midst of experiencing the suffering that they have inflicted on him! It’s one thing to forgive somebody after you’ve had time to deal with the pain they’ve caused you and perhaps get over it; it’s quite another thing to forgive people while you’re experiencing the pain they’ve caused you at its worst!

Jesus forgave his murderers—totally and completely—while they were in the process of murdering him! That had to be impressive to a man like Dismas, whose life up to that point had probably been ruled by hatred and unforgiveness.

We do not know for sure why the Good Thief opened his heart to Christ, but we do know that he did. And that’s enough for us to know, because it means that his personal life story—as bad as it might have been previously—had a happy ending!

Once his heart had been touched, he said those famous words of repentance to Jesus: “Remember me when you come into your kingdom”; and our Lord responded with his famous words of forgiveness and mercy, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Which brings us back to the question I asked at the beginning: What was the best day of Dismas’ life?

If you had questioned the Good Thief himself about that, as he was being nailed to the cross late Good Friday morning—if you had said to him at that precise moment, “Dismas, what was the best day of your life?” he might have said, “Any day but this one!”

Of course, if he was married, he also might have said, “The best day of my life was the day I met my future wife.” If he had a child, he might have said, “The best day of my life was the day my child was born.”

There are many possibilities. There are many things that we can reasonably assume he might have said.

But there’s one thing we can be 99.999% certain he would NOT have said at the moment he was being crucified. He would not have said, “The best day of my life is THIS ONE.”

But it was! Good Friday was, without question, the best day of this man’s life on planet earth. And the very best part, of his very best day, was the part when he hung on the cross next to Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, in utter agony!

How’s that for ironic?

It was best day of the Good Thief’s life, because it was the day he opened his heart to Jesus Christ and received the gift of salvation. Without that day—and specifically without the suffering of that day—he would probably have spent eternity in hell!

And I’m sure that Dismas himself realized this once he heard Jesus say to him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

So, if you had asked him this question just a minute before he died: “Dismas, what was the best day of your life?” he would have given you a very different answer than he would have given 3 hours earlier. Looking at his life from a new perspective—an eternal perspective—would have led him to say, “TODAY is the best day of my life, without question—not because of my suffering on this cross, but rather because of how I’ve responded to my suffering.”

Hopefully, you can see how all of this applies to us.

Speaking personally, for example, I wonder: When my life is over (which I hope it won’t be for awhile!) will I look back and say, “One of the best days of my life was the day my father died”; “One of the best days of my life was the day my mother died”; “One of the best days of my life was the day I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease”?

Not if I’m on my way to hell! But if I’m on my way to heaven, in part because I’ve allowed the tragic experiences of my life to affect me in the same way that the Good Thief allowed his suffering to affect him, then yes, in the end I will look on many of the most difficult days of my life as great days—or perhaps I should say “blessed” days—because in the midst of them I will have grown in faith and holiness. And that will have a direct influence on the level of happiness I experience forever in heaven! To paraphrase Bishop Sheen on this point: Sometimes God allows us to suffer to make us good (as was the case with Dismas); but, if we’re already good, there are times when God allows us to suffer to make us better.

And better we will definitely be, IF we make the choice to respond to our crosses like Dismas, the Good Thief, responded to his.