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Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Legend of St. Dismas

The Legend of St. Dismas
Pauline Sanders
Many years ago, after Jesus was born, the evil King Herod waited for the three kings from the Orient to return to his kingdom with news of the newborn King. When they did not return, Herod grew afraid that this new King would cause him to lose his throne. Because of this, he ordered his soldiers to kill all the babies in Nazareth, from those newly born up to two years of age.



Now, God the Father could not allow Herod’s men to kill the Infant Jesus, so He sent an angel to speak to Saint Joseph while he slept. The angel told Saint Joseph in a dream to take his family and flee with them to the land of Egypt, where they would be safe. Saint Joseph woke up and prepared in great haste to leave their simple home.

The Massacre of the Innocents by Angelo Visconti.
When the time came to leave, Mary the mother of Jesus woke her Infant, Who wept a little, as might any little child who is suddenly awakened in the middle of the night. But Our Lady soothed Him tenderly, cooing and kissing Him reverently until He became quiet again.
Saint Joseph placed the Mother and the Holy Child on a donkey and set off for Egypt. Now, Egypt could only be reached by crossing a vast desert, which the Holy Family had to cross without much food or drink, for they were very poor. Sometimes, they suffered much from hunger, not having anything to eat the whole day, and at night they had little protection against the bitter cold. Our Lady was sad because the baby in her arms shivered with cold and cried. So it was that the Holy Family suffered terrible hardships on their way to Egypt.
Nevertheless, nature came to their aid time and time again in a miraculous way. Once, when the Holy Family was very hungry, they came to a place in the desert where a fig tree stood, laden with fruit. The fruit was too high for Saint Joseph to reach, so the tree bent its branches so that Mary and Joseph could help themselves to as much fruit as they needed for Jesus and themselves. Another time, when they had gone all day without eating, Our Lady, using her power as queen of the angels, commanded them to help with some nourishment. Thousands of angels rushed to help the Holy Family, bringing them heavenly juices and delicious food. They also walked with the Holy Family during the night, and their brilliance lit up the way as if it were a sunny day!

The Flight to Egypt by Diego Quispe Tito.
One night, after many long days on their journey, the Holy Family came to a very desolate place, one full of great danger, for a gang of thieves hid in nearby caves and assaulted lonely pilgrims. From their lookouts, they watched Holy Family coming closer and closer, and at the opportune moment, pounced on them. However, the minute they looked at the beautiful Child, a bright ray, like an arrow, penetrated the heart of the leader. Strangely moved, the thief had a change of heart. He ordered his fellow robbers not to harm the holy pilgrims and to the gang’s surprise, invited the Holy Family to dine with him at his house. The robber told his wife how strangely his heart had been moved, and while many of the thieves shyly looked on, the woman brought the awe-inspiring pilgrims little rolls, fruits, honeycomb, and juice.
After they had eaten, Our Lady asked the robber’s wife for some water to bathe Her Child. The woman brought a tub filled with water and stood by with her husband as Our Lady tenderly washed the desert dust from the Infant Jesus. The husband and his whole gang of thieves were deeply moved by the appearance of the Holy Family, whose charm, beauty, and goodness wrought a change of heart in nearly all who came into contact with them. Our Lady was so beautiful and queenly that it is said that people came out of their homes to gaze at Her as She walked by. She was not only sweet, and wise, but full of life and holy counsels. Saint Joseph and the Infant Jesus also touched hearts in a similar manner. Imagine what manner of grace and splendor they brought into that dingy den of robbers and sinners!

At a certain moment the robber whispered to his wife, “This Hebrew Child is no ordinary Child. Ask the Lady to allow us to wash our leprous son in His bath water, for it may do him some good.” Before the wife approached the Blessed Mother with this request, Our Lady turned to her and kindly instructed her to wash her boy in that same water. The poor couple’s son was really terribly afflicted by this horrible disease. At Our Lady’s word, the woman hurried to the darkest corner of the room and lifted her three-year old boy, whose limbs were stiff from the leprosy. As she lowered the child into the basin, she saw the leprous scabs fall from his body as soon as the water touched it. Everyone watched in wonder as the boy became clean and healthy once again. The woman, beside herself with joy, ran to embrace Our Lady and the Infant Jesus, but Mary gently warded her off. She told her to save the water in a hole in a rock for similar future uses, then spoke to her for a long time, counseling her to escape from her home among the thieves at the first opportunity. The woman promised, and in fact, did leave them later on and joined the women at the balsam garden.
Early the next morning, the Holy Family left the den of thieves with their host and hostess leading the way past the snares set up for travelers. When at last, they had to take leave of the Holy Family, the husband and wife expressed their deep feelings, beseeching them, “Remember us wherever you go!” The region where all this took place was called Gaza, the last town before passing into Egypt.

Lithograph of Gaza by Charles William Meredith van de Velde
Thirty years later
Thirty years passed. As the Child grew wondrously in holiness and beauty, the robber’s child also grew, but in wickedness and sin. Then, Savior and the robber found themselves side by side once again on wooden crosses. The One was the Son of God, sinless and innocent, suffering to free us all from the bonds of sin. And the other?
Ah! Poor Dismas, thy first
leprosy was fair
To that which now disfigures
thy poor soul.
No water from His bath will
cleanse thee now,
His blood alone hath power to
make thee whole.
A thousand worlds in one
blood-crimson bath.
With godlike prodigality it pours,
In such strong streams that even crimes like thine
Are borne away in its
irresistible flood!*
Jesus hung between the two thieves, bleeding, silent, dying. His sacrifice had been made. Dismas looked at Him, and his heart was moved as strangely as his father’s had been long ago when looking into the face of the King of kings. He suddenly saw the hideousness of the life he had led and knew that he deserved to hang there on this awful cross. But this other Man, this Jesus who was called the Son of God, He was surely innocent!

Golgotha by Jan Brueghel the Younger. Photograph by Rama
And then he looked down on the beautiful, tear-stained face of the sorrowful mother, her eyes fixed on her dying Son.
He knew that face!
He remembered those sweet eyes looking down on him in that bath so long ago! Now his heart was pierced. Gratitude, that wondrous virtue that dissipates darkness and sin flooded his soul. Suddenly he knew that the leprosy of old was nothing compared to the horrible crimes on his soul. As his blood-shot eyes filled, he suddenly knew Who that Babe had been. He drew in a ragged breath and addressed Jesus: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom!”

Ah! what strange echoes those familiar words must have rung in Our Lady’s memory! And Jesus, lifting His dying gaze to the face of the thief, promptly offered him this everlasting promise: “This day, Dismas, you will be with me in Paradise!”