The Second Sunday of Easter (A)
April 19, 2020
Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established a new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
Genesis 8:6-16; 9:8-16
1 Peter 1:3-9
Before we get too far, let me go over my basic position on the story of so-called, Doubting Thomas. Thomas is not to be reviled as a faithless doubter. All he was asking was to have the same opportunity as the other disciples. They all had been able to see their Lord, risen, in the flesh. Jesus had readily “showed them his hands and his side” so they might believe. Sure, Thomas sounds like a bit of a jerk with his bad attitude, not taking his friends at their word. Bottom line, however, is that he wanted to see for himself, just as his friends had.
Mary Magdalene also gets a bad rap for wanting to touch Jesus. Everyone remembers Jesus’ words to her, rendered famously in Latin as “nole me tangere” — “don’t touch me.” In this form, they have come down to us with great force. Seared into my mind’s eye is the disdainful look on the face of Titian’s and Fra Angelico’s Jesus as he pushes Mary away. Yes, the text does make it fairly clear from Jesus’ response that she must have embraced him, grabbed hold of him as she called him “Rabboni” At the same time, that text is better rendered, “Do not hold me,” which casts a different light on the matter. I do not think, therefore, that Jesus was telling Mary not to touch him, not to embrace him, feel his corporeal presence. Rather, he seems to have been telling her not to cling to him, not to keep holding on. They have business to do; people to see; work to accomplish. There isn’t a lot of time. He sends her off on a mission to tell the other disciples what has happened. It isn’t about touching and seeing, it is about the urgency of the moment.
Resurrection is a tactile business. Of course they all wanted to embrace their friend; to behold him and, even, “see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side.” It makes perfect sense. Jesus had died and was now back with them. He had suffered so much and, clearly, still bore the scars of that experience. The new body of the resurrection was not sanitised to wash away all the bad things. Those scars were still there for all the world to see (and even feel) so that we might know that such new life is waiting for all of us, bearers as we are of our own scars.
The first disciples had the distinct privilege to do exactly what we ourselves long to do: see the Risen Christ in the flesh, behold his wounds, embrace him, and rejoice with him at his having defeated death for all of us. It was natural that Thomas wanted this opportunity for himself and it should not be surprising that when he meets Jesus, Jesus offers him the chance to do just that, saying “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.”
That last phrase, along with what Jesus said next, however, is usually taken to be a rebuke to Thomas: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” I think we need to understand what Jesus said not as criticism that Thomas was somehow lacking in faith, but as telling us—those who never have had the privilege of being in the presence of the Risen Christ—that we are blessed. It is meant to give encouragement to those of us who were not there during those first Great Fifty Days, but who came to believe and know Jesus in other ways. We did not know him in the flesh of his risen body. We did not get to embrace him, give him a clap on the back, shake his hand manfully, or even probe his wounds. That was something special for Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the others.
The story of Thomas should never make us feel bad; like a doubting Thomas. The particular experience of Mary Magdalene, Thomas, and the disciples is not one we can ever share. None of us can, in the flesh, “see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side.” Yet, we believe. We have faith in—a living relationship with—the Risen Christ and we are commended by Jesus himself for it in today’s Gospel. We have faith for we have seen the Risen Christ in our own way, in each other and in the Sacrament. It is good and natural for us to experience our faith with all our senses; to see and believe.
We have, indeed, come to know the Risen Lord in many ways. John, in fact, tells us in today’s Gospel that he knows we will not receive the gift Jesus gave Thomas and the others, and so he writes these stories “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.” We come to know Jesus in the texts of Scripture. We also come to know his risen body in the Sacrament that we take into our own bodies at mass so that we may be one with him, turned collectively into the Body of Christ, able to do his work in the world. We have, in fact, become quite used to strengthening our faith by seeing and touching in our own way.
And this brings us to where we are today. We have indeed become very used to seeing the Risen Christ in the Eucharist we celebrate together every week, both in the elements of bread and wine we consume and in the community, the Body of Christ itself. For two thousand years or so, Christians have been able to experience our Risen Lord, “place [our] hand in his side,” in and through the bread we place on our tongues and in the wine that passes our lips. Yet today, Christians across the world are barred, for good reason on account of this global pandemic of which we are in the midst, from gathering together and receiving the sacrament.
This is especially painful in a community like ours in which we experience worship together in and through our five senses. We come to church expecting and receiving the experience which Thomas seeks. We engage all our senses and we experience the real presence of Christ among us. We see, hear, smell, touch, and taste as we worship, and in these physical actions our faith is strengthened, our living relationship with God in Christ grows because we know it is real.
In this environment those of you watching this mass can only see and hear. And, what you see is reduced to a screen and while you can hear the chanting and the prayers, you can not join your breath with our breath, singing and saying them together with us. On top of it all, you can’t smell the incense; be in each other’s physical presence; or touch, taste, and consume the Sacrament.
Today we are separated from almost all the sensory experiences of worship, and yet, you are still here. I feel a bit like Thomas, in fact. I get to place my hands on the sacrament and receive it into my body, and say, “My Lord and my God.” My honour and privilege is that I am making my communion on behalf of all of you. Blessed are you who have not touched and yet believe.
Even though our current circumstance is unprecedented and there have been few if any moments in history like this, our tradition provides an understanding that can help us here and now. It was always imagined that there would be those who would desire to receive the sacrament but who, “either by reason of extremity of sickness, ... or for lack of company to receive with him, or by any other impediment,” would not be able to do so. In the Book of Common Prayer, the clergy are instructed that a faithful person who, “do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption; earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore,” is to be given reassurance that despite not being able to receive bodily “he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health.”
In this moment, when the faithful are denied this sacrament on our tongues, denied the smell of the incense in church, denied joining our breath (our Spirit) with that of others in saying and singing the prayers and hymns, denied the kiss of peace, I am here to give you that reassurance. I know that you believe “that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross ..., and shed his Blood for [our] redemption.” I know that you are thankful for his gift to us in the Resurrection and the new life it brings. I know your faith is strong, that you have the faith of our living relationship with the Risen Christ. Today as we share this mass with you, as you watch from your apartments or homes, wherever you are, whether you attend regularly or have never set foot in the building, by your living faith you are making an act of spiritual communion with Christ and with his Body throughout the world. “Although [you] do not receive the Sacrament with [your] mouth,” you experience in the here and now the Risen Christ among us during these the strangest of Great Fifty Days and receive the benefits of his Body and Blood just as truly as if you were there in that room with Thomas and his friends.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Friday in Easter Week, 17 April 2020
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume