First Sunday after Easter
23 April 2017
Acts 2:14a, 22-32; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-31
This first Sunday after Easter has long been known as Low Sunday because in contrast to Easter Sunday it cannot possibly be as festive. It is also less well known by the strange name of Quasimodo Sunday from the former introductory prayer of the Mass (Quasi modo geniti infants—that is, As you are newborn children), which referred to those newly baptized as well as to the Resurrection itself. And although the apostle Thomas doesn’t quite fit into that class of person, his coming round to believe in the resurrected Jesus at least gives him an association with these neophytes.
Today’s readings are variations on the theme that Jesus is alive and amongst us. Peter puts that forward unequivocally to those to whom he speaks and who, he suggests, saw Jesus die. And then to those to whom he writes, who are suffering for their belief in Jesus. Dramatically, what Peter says about Jesus being with them is shown to be true when Thomas himself sees Jesus.
These events of preaching, writing, and seeing subsequent to the death of Jesus are necessary testimonies to the Resurrection because, as Edward Schillerbeeckx writes, “Jesus’ message, his way of living his life and in the end his very person were in fact rejected. In a straight historical sense Jesus failed in his life’s project” (Jesus: An Experiment in Christology, 640). But if a failed life is manifest in Jesus’ death, a successful life is manifest in his resurrection. Our entry—and that of his disciples, especially of Thomas—into Jesus’ resurrection is possible only through our confidence that God has exalted Jesus and taken him into a new life. Thus can Garry Wills write: “The Messianic community not only suffered because it was like Jesus. It suffered because it was Jesus” (What the Gospels Meant, 43).
“The empty tomb,” Hans Küng indicates, “is not a condition, but at best an illustration, of the Easter event” (On Being a Christian, 366). It simply means that Jesus is not dead. Easter does not have to mean that Jesus rose bodily from the tomb. Easter can mean, rather, that Jesus’ message, his way of living his life, and in the end his very person are in fact accepted by God, by “the almighty Creator who calls things from nothingness into being and can also call men from death into life” (p. 360). “Jesus’ cause makes sense and continues, because he himself did not remain—a failure—in death, but lives on completely justified by God” (p. 352). If that were not the case, we would not be here today, more than two millennia later, sharing in the Easter event.
If this is the case—and my best reading of Schillerbeeckx, Küng, and Wills is that this is a sound understanding of Easter, though the Holy Office might not agree with me or them—then we might want to think differently about Thomas, the Doubting Apostle, than has usually been thought.
I think of Thomas as a modern man. He is presented as someone who likes evidence better than authority. He is someone who is not worried that everything is going to fall apart if he does not think, say, and do what everyone else thinks, says, and does. It takes a personal encounter with the risen Jesus to move him to a personal affirmation of belief. Once that encounter takes place, the fact that Jesus has been raised to a new life in God is as evident to him as it had been to his brethren.
The conclusion that I arrive at, therefore, is this: Thomas comes to believe in the risen Christ because he has been true to himself. The broader generalization that I would make is this: Each of us has a better chance of believing in the risen Christ if we are true to ourselves. Part of the Easter message as it is projected in the figure of Thomas seems to be that truth to our root selves, our radical selves, allows us a better chance to find the radical Jesus, the exalted Jesus alive in God; that is, the Jesus who was true to himself.
If this is the case, then we might want further to ask how we go about finding our radical selves? The answer, which I am sure you breathlessly await, is: I don’t know! But one writer, who is not usually mentioned in liturgical circles, at least has a suggestion. D. H. Lawrence insistently and persistently celebrates the true self in that entity he calls “Me Alive”—an Easter entity, if ever there was one! So to him in his poem “Don’ts” I give the last words of this homily:
Don’t be a good little, good little boy
being as good as you can
and agreeing with all the mealy-mouthed, mealy-mouthed
truths that the sly trot out
to protect themselves . . .
every old lout.
Don’t’ earn golden opinions, opinions golden,
or at least worth Treasury notes
from all sorts of men; don’t be beholden
to the herd inside the pen.
. . .
Don’t be sucked in by the su-superior,
don’t swallow the culture bait,
don’t drink, don’t drink and get beerier and beerier,
do learn to discriminate.
Do hold yourself together, and fight
with a hit-hit here and a hit-hit there,
and a comfortable feeling at night
that you’ve let in a little air.
A little fresh air in the money sty,
knocked a little hole in the holy prison,
done your own little bit, made your own little try
that the risen Christ should be risen.
(“Don’t”, The Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry, ed. Richard Ellmannn and Robert O’Clair, 322-33.)