Sunday, April 26, 2009: ANTIPASCHA. 2nd SUNDAY OF PASCHA — Tone 1. St. Thomas Sunday. Hieromartyr Basil, Bishop of Amasea (ca. 322). St. Stephen, Bishop of Perm (1396). Righteous Virgin Glaphyra (322). St. Joannicius of Devich in Serbia (13th c.).
Then, the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in the midst, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When He had said this, He showed them His hands and His side. Then the disciples were glad when they saw the Lord. So Jesus said to them again, “Peace to you! As the Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained. Now Thomas, called the Twin, one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said to him, “We have seen the Lord.” So he said to them, “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.” And after eight days His disciples were again inside, and Thomas with them. Jesus came, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace to you!” Then He said to Thomas, “Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing.” And Thomas answered and said to Him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.
Christ is Risen!
We heard most of this morning’s Gospel last Sunday at Agape Vespers. Unlike last week, however, the Gospel reading stopped at verse 25 where Thomas, having just heard from his fellow disciples the news of the resurrection says: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
There is, as there was the case with the final Gospel ( Mt 27:62-66) that we heard at the end of both the Twelve Passion Gospels at Matins on Great Holy Thursday evening and at the Lamentations Service that is the Matins service for Great and Holy Friday evening at Lamentations, something stark about the Gospel reading for Agape Vespers.
Especially because I know the story I expect the Gospel to come (in both cases) to a successful conclusion. I want to move quickly past that moment when the Jews “ sealing the stone, and setting a watch,” ( Mt 27.66) and to the moment when “Mary Magdalene and the other Mary,” encounter with an angel and announcement of the Resurrection in Matthew 28. And likewise, I want Thomas’ challenge to be answered, I want the Risen Lord Jesus to appear to Thomas as Jesus appeared to the women disciples and eventually to the disciples.
In wanting to hear the proclamation of the Resurrection, I’m desiring something that good. There should be no question that in wanting this I want what is good. The problem is not so much, or so it seems to me, what I want to move toward as what I am so anxious of leaving behind.
In one sense the story of Jesus’ last week is far from humanity’s finest hour. Religious faith and the laws of civil society are both bent and twisted to serve the ravenous desires of the human ego for power and control. And as much as the events of Holy Week are a chronicle of sin in high places, of the ways in which those charged with the common good in the religious and secular arenas are willing to betray the trust of their office, it is also a very intimate, homey story of sin. It is not only those who a great who betray Jesus. He suffers betrayal and abandonment at the hands of those who He loved and who loved Him.
And it seems that at first not even the news of His Resurrection can undo humanity’s commitment to our self-defeating life of sin.
And even when there is faith, even when the news of the Resurrection is received, it is reception isn’t pure. Human ego and our desire to dominate one another is still present, mixed in as it were, with our faith. It is worth remembering that the same men who in John’s Gospel proclaims the Resurrection to Thomas are inclined (in the words of Luke’s Gospel) to dismiss the women’s proclamation “as idle tales,” that did not believe (24.11).
St Mark sketches out for us a bit more of the “apostolic” disbelief in the Resurrection.
Now when He rose early on the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven demons. She went and told those who had been with Him, as they mourned and wept. And when they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they did not believe ( 16.9-11).
The story of the Resurrection, like the events of Great and Holy Week that precede it, is also not humanity’s finest moment.
St Peter Chrysologus, the fifth century bishop of Ravenna, describes the Apostle Thomas “a sleuth” and “a little too clever” for his own good. Rhetorically, he asks about Thomas
Why does the hand of a faithful disciple in this fashion retrace those wounds that an unholy hand inflict? Why does the hand of a dutiful follower strive to reopen the side that the lance of an unholy soldier pierced? Why does the harsh curiosity of a servant repeat the torturers imposed by the rage of persecutors? Why is a disciple so inquisitive about proving from His torments that He is the Lord, for His pain that He is God, and from His wounds that He is the heavenly Physician? (“Sermon,” 84.8, quoted in ACCS , NT vol IV b, p. 367)
Why, in other words, can we (like Thomas) not leave sinfulness behind?
Peter explains that Thomas’ questions are asked in anticipation of his “going to preach” the Gospel “to the Gentile.” And so Thomas takes on the role of a “ conscientious investigator” so that through his careful examination “he might provide a foundation for the faith needed for such a mystery.” And Christ, in anticipation of the Gospel which was to be proclaimed, “kept His wounds . . . to provide evidence of His Resurrection.”
Like it or not, the path to faith must, necessarily, proceed along the way of doubt and disbelief. Not because, as some would have it, because faith and doubt are two sides of the same coin. No, I must walk the path of unbelieving because that is my beginning point. All the ways in which we say humanity fail during the events of Great and Holy Week are not simply history, they are my story as well.
And, just like Thomas, my faith is weak and demands proof. And, again like Thomas, my need for proof is so strong that I am willing to be cruel if cruelty is what it takes to undo my disbelief.
To stop here, to see only the depth of human sinfulness and more deprivation, is to tell only half the story. If the events of Great and Holy Week reveals the depths to which human beings can sink, they also make clear the heights to which we can ascend. If Holy Week is our darkest moment, it is also in Christ and in those who did not abandon Him, Mary the Theotokos, “His mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, . . . Mary Magdalene [and] the disciple whom He loved” (Jn 19.25, 26) our finest moment. If in Adam we betray Him, in Him and in the faithful few who stand by Him, we are faithful.
The temptation though is to imagine that some how I can separate in myself Thomas from John (to name only two disciples), that my own unbelief and cruelty are themselves something other than faith and love misdirected and undeified. It is so easy for me to blame Thomas and praise John.
Curiously, the Apostle John does not blame Thomas, he does not begrudge his brother apostle his questions and doubts. In fact, at the end of his life, the Beloved Disciple looks back to the events he records for us and remembers Thomas’ challenge: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and put my hand into His side, I will not believe.”
And remembering those long ago events, he writes to the Church:
That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life— the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us— that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you that your joy may be full. ( 1 Jn 1.1-4)
My brothers and sisters in Christ, our doubts, or little (and not so little) acts of cruelty and betrayal are the signs that we have not yet been transformed by divine love. But that transformation cannot happen if I deny the presence of doubt, or cruelty, or betrayal or any other sin in my own heart.
To borrow from St Romanus the Melodius, human sinfulness is part of “the bramble which endured fire” which, though “burned” is “not consumed.” The Fire of God’s love does not destroy, it heals what is ill and transfigures what is earthly. And once deified, “To many who had a little doubt” Thomas is able to “presuade them to say, ‘Thou art our Lord and God.” (“Kontakion on Doubting Thomas,” 30.1-3, ACCS , NT vol IV b, pp. 371-372).
But none of this comes for me any more easily then it did for Thomas and the others. It requires that I pause and reflect not simply upon my own sinfulness or God’s mercy. Rather I must see both together and then, like Thomas, reach out to the God Who again and again comes to find me who does not even know I am lost.