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Holy Week, the Annunciation and St. Dismas…

Holy Week, the Annunciation and St. Dismas…

COMMENTARY: The Good Thief is our companion this Holy Week, giving hope to every sinner who worries that it might be too late.

Happy feast of the Good Thief! (More or less.)

There are no feast days observed during Holy Week. When March 25 falls during Holy Week, as it does this year, the great feast of the Annunciation is delayed to the Monday after Divine Mercy Sunday. Holy Week and the Easter Octave take precedence over all.

Yet there is a lesson to be learned when March 25 falls during Holy Week, because in the long Christian tradition, March 25 is more about Holy Week than the Annunciation. Indeed, March 25 is the feast of the Annunciation because the first Good Friday was on March 25. The Good Thief, we might say, had his feast day “stolen” from him.

How do we know the original date of Good Friday, at least liturgically speaking?

March 25 is recorded as the Good Thief’s feast day in the Roman Martyrology — the liturgical book in which the saints and blessed are enrolled according to their feast days. On Good Friday he was promised that “today” he would with Jesus in paradise (Luke 23:43). Christian tradition holds that it was March 25, so his feast day is that date.

That is reflected in Christian literature, too. March 25 in Italy is observed as Dante Day, in honor of the author of the Divine Comedy. Dante travels through hell, The Inferno, on Good Friday. Therefore, the traditional date of the original Good Friday, March 25, is chosen as Dante Day.

All that requires some background. Let Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, in The Spirit of the Liturgy, explain the importance of March 25:

“Jewish tradition gave the date of March 25th to Abraham’s sacrifice. … This day was also regarded as the day of creation, the day when God’s word decreed: ‘Let there be light.’ It was also considered, very early on, as the day of Christ’s death and eventually as the day of his conception. This is most illuminating. It seems clear to me that we have to recapture this cosmic vision if we want once again to understand and live Christianity in its full breadth.”

Following Jewish tradition, which gave March 25 as the date of creation and of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the early Christians reasoned that the same crucial date would be fitting for the redemption — Good Friday. And if for the redemption, then the Incarnation too.

In the ancient world there was a widespread belief that the lives of great persons would be brought to a close in the perfect fulfillment of their years; they would die upon the same date as they had once been conceived. So the Church Fathers argued backwards. Jesus was crucified on March 25, thus he was conceived on that date, too. Christmas would follow nine months later.

“Astonishingly, the starting point for dating the birth of Christ was March 25,” writes Cardinal Ratzinger. Christmas is Dec. 25 because Good Friday (and thus the Annunciation) is March 25. “The decisive factor was the connection of creation and cross, of creation and Christ’s conception. In the light of the ‘hour of Jesus,’ these dates brought the cosmos into the picture.”

Spiritually, what does it mean for March 25 this year? With the Annunciation delayed until April, this March 25 invites reflection on the saint who usually gets overlooked on that day, the Good Thief (by tradition named Dismas). The Good Thief is the first fruit of the redemption, promised paradise even before Jesus visits the righteous dead of every age awaiting the redemption.

The Good Thief is our companion this Holy Week, from Monday to Good Friday, giving hope to every sinner who worries that it might be too late. It never is. The Good Thief waited until the last moments of his life to ask for mercy. Jesus promised him paradise at the earliest moment — that very day.

The Church’s liturgy gives meaning to the monotony of time, just as at the beginning time itself was created by God to give diffusion to His glory. The holiest days in all of history fall now, and they radiate backward and forward to embrace all of salvation history — creation, incarnation and redemption.

The Good Thief, stands vigil, as it were, on his feast day to remind us of the cosmic confluence of that day, that all of salvation history finds itself at the Cross — even, or especially, the Annunciation. This Holy Week, he deserves more attention than usual.

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