In our Lenten classes, we have been studying the Passion of our Lord, as recounted in Holy Scripture and interpreted by the Fathers of the Church; we will hear two of the Passion Gospel accounts chanted in church in Holy Week; and many of us have seen the movie, The Passion of The Christ. The details of that several day period in the earthly life of our Savior are vivid in our minds and hearts. We identify with the failings of each of the characters: when we should be keeping watch with Christ, we fall asleep as the disciples did; with Peter, we promise to follow Christ even to death and yet, also with Peter, we deny Him.
The Church rightly pays much attention to the major “players” in this great drama – the blessed Theotokos and the Apostles – but there are others whose scriptural roles are minor but who are also honored among the saints. As we pass through Holy Week and approach the great celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord, let us also remember these saints who were completely transformed by Christ.
St. Dismas, one of the two thieves crucified with our Lord, was a criminal, described in the Gospels as a robber and further identified by the Jewish historian Josephus as a militant nationalist (whose tactics were akin to that of the “terrorists” of our day). When his fellow criminal, Gestas, mocked Jesus as they hung on the crosses, Dismas rebuked him and reminded him that they were receiving the expected penalty for the crimes that they had committed. But, recognizing the divinity of Christ, who had willingly accepted this punishment, he cried out to Him: “Lord, remember me when you come into your kingdom” [Luke 23:42], and Christ promised that Dismas would be with him in paradise. Our Lord’s parable of the workers in the vineyard [Matt. 20], in which those who began at the 11th hour received the same pay as those who had labored all day, told us that in God’s eyes, every repentant sinner will be forgiven. At the Paschal Liturgy, we will hear the sermon of St John Chrysostom which also reminds us that it is never too late to turn to Christ. St. Dismas is the most dramatic example of God’s mercy and forgiveness – even to those whose repentance occurs at the “midnight hour” of their lives. At every Liturgy, we promise: “Like the thief will I confess thee: remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom.”(We celebrate St. Dismas’ feast day on March 25, which some in the early Church observed as the date of the crucifixion.)
St. Longinus is the name given to the Roman centurion, described in the synoptic Gospels as the one who supervised the crucifixion of Christ and the two thieves. He had overseen the entire process – the scourging, the long walk carrying the crosses to Golgotha, the nailing, the offer of vinegar on the sponge. But through all of this, he had also witnessed our Lord’s compassion toward his persecutors (“Father, forgive them”); he had seen the devotion of His mother, the other women and of St. John; he had heard the promise to the penitent thief. Perhaps Longinus was already beginning to recognize the Truth when, at our Lord’s death, the sky darkened and the earth shook with an earthquake. Then, acknowledging the One before him, Longinus said, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” His life was forever changed.
St. Mark [15:44] records that the centurion’s duties continued as he was summoned before Pilate to confirm the death of Christ before the governor could allow the body to be taken away. Longinus then disappears from the scriptural record, but holy tradition provides the rest of the story. Longinus is believed to have left military service (deserted) in order to be with the followers of Jesus and learn of His teachings. After the resurrection and the events of Pentecost, Longinus went back to his homeland, Cappadocia, to tell his friends and relatives about Christ. It was here that he was captured by the military authorities and beheaded for his desertion. He is considered a martyr by the Church and his feast day is celebrated on October 16. May St. Longinus pray that our eyes and minds and hearts may be open to see the Truth before us and worship Him, no matter the cost.
The Sanhedrin, the legal body for the Temple at Jerusalem, the group which brought Jesus before Pilate and demanded his execution, was not unanimous in its judgements. At least two members of this court were followers of Christ – Nichodemus and Joseph of Arimathea. Perhaps because of their influential position in the community, these men had not been very public in showing their interest in Jesus (Nichodemus had come to Christ under cover of darkness to ask him questions [John 3]), but their cowardice came to an end at this fateful time. They each protested against the accusers of Christ in the deliberations of the Sanhedrin and they argued against bringing Him before Pilate.
After the crucifixion, Joseph went to Pilate and asked to take Jesus’ body to his own newly-carved tomb for burial. Scripture describes Joseph as a just man and a rich man and, in accordance with his concern for justice, he offered the fruits of his riches as a last resting place for our Lord. Nichodemus assisted Joseph with the burial and, according to tradition, is thought to have soon been baptized by St. Peter and to have been ousted from the Sanhedrin and forced to leave Jerusalem for his conversion to Christianity. St. Nichodemus is honored by the Church on August 3.
From extra-Biblical writings, we learn that after the Resurrection, Joseph became an ardent and public member of the Christian community, helping to found the church at Lydda. It is believed that Joseph also traveled with the Apostle Philip to England, where he was instrumental in establishing the church at Glastonbury, which became a great place of pilgrimage. Other pious legends have persisted through many centuries and are celebrated in the English hymn “Jerusalem” (“and did those feet in ancient times…”, a reference to this Joseph bringing Mary and the Christ Child to England) and in the legend of the Glastonbury thorn (which grew from Joseph’s staff). St. Joseph’s feast day is celebrated on February 22. May Ss. Nichodemus and Joseph of Arimathea pray for us, that we may be able to justly defend the Right and offer our riches to God, proclaiming the good news of Christ our Savior.
There are other characters in the story that we know even less about. Malchus, the servant of the High Priest, was healed by Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane after Peter cut off his ear with a sword. Simon of Cyrene (in modern Libya) was forced to carry the Cross for Jesus; he is noted as the father of Alexander and Rufus (who were probably known to the Church in Rome). While we know little about them, we can be certain that the events of our Lord’s Passion touched them and changed their lives forever. As we meditate on the mighty acts of God in Holy Week, may we too be healed and transformed by all that we hear and see.