April 19, 2020
When I was a boy, the first Sunday after Easter was known as “Low Sunday.” The previous Sunday had marked the greatest feast in the Christian year, in the Christian faith, and thus, anything following it had to be anticlimactic. Or so the thinking seemed to go. Yet, the Gospel was the same, John’s story about the doubting Thomas, and like today, Easter extended from Easter Sunday all the way to Pentecost.
This year in particular, the moniker “Low” might seem appropriate enough. Easter itself felt “low” due to the shelter-in-place orders most everyone has all been faithfully observing. In fact, things are so low at this point in the Covid-19 catastrophe, that what we celebrate on Easter and in this season might get lost in the overall sense of panic that has beset many of us. For we were celebrating—remembering—the fact that in Jesus, God acted in and through suffering and death to conquer it and bring about a new creation. and that this new creation is the foundation of our hope: That even in the midst of the worst suffering, and in the face of death itself, God’s grace is constantly on offer.
It is tempting to attribute this Easter faith to a Christianized version of a myth of eternal return, or a theological gloss on the obvious wonder of new life springing forth from winter’s hardened earth and appearance of death. But that is not what this is about, lovely as those images are, and even helpful in inspiring a sense of possibility, a future. For the death that was conquered in the Resurrection of Jesus was a real, bodily death. And that body was itself an outward expression of the fact that God had entered fully into the human condition in Jesus (that other feast we celebrate in December, the Incarnation). What the Incarnation tells us is that our human natures are made for this union with God, accomplished fully in Jesus, and analogously accomplished in us through a lifetime of grace ever abounding. Aquinas reminds us that the finality of a human life is in union with God, and that that human life includes the body. Of course, we are not speaking of a union of a physical body with God—an absurdity—but of the whole of our persons, symbolized by the body, in God. What makes Christian faith in the Resurrection a real thing—what anchors it—is not the sheer will to believe. It is, rather, that there is something to be discovered in this embodied existence, where Christ dwelt, with all its suffering, with the ineluctability of death: that God is found there; God resides there. And that the human, human nature, is entrée into the full reality of God. The conditions for union with God, completion in God, are set even before we are aware of that fact—or even if we are never made aware of it. But those with the gift of faith are aware of this fact, and that makes all the difference as we face death. When Jesus quite often counsels his disciples to “fear not,” he is pointing to a profoundly challenging dimension of this faith, of believing: that we can let go of our fears, even in the midst of the most terrifying suffering, because God is radically present in the realities we inhabit and is there to lead us through all of this harrowing directly into a more intense union with himself.
But, accepting that is not an easy thing. In today’s Gospel, Thomas is reaching for that kind of faith. He wants to touch the wounds of Christ, not for empirical evidence of the Resurrection in a modern scientific sense, but in order to connect the Jesus he sees with the fact that Jesus is, as John reminds us at the start of his Gospel, the Word made flesh. It is this very Word-made-flesh that has now been raised from the dead. Thomas wants the complete experience of this fact—a somatic experience of the completeness of God’s work in Jesus as God’s promise for him. And his response is not one of a modern sceptic (I now have evidence, and so I’ll give it some credence); it is rather one of worship, of adoration, before the manifestation of the power of God’s love: “My Lord and my God!” For before this fact, this unity between Incarnation and Resurrection, there is a unity between our own embodied existence and God’s desire for us, his constant self-offer. We are made for this unity, this glory—for Resurrection understood as the finality of our embodied existence, the completion of our human natures in God.
All that said, the suffering and death we are witnessing and will continue to witness in the Covid-19 pandemic are overpoweringly real. They admit of no sugar-coating. But no death admits of sugar-coating, especially when it is tinged with human sinfulness, as in warfare or violence. But even here we are challenged, as Thomas was, to find the reality of God—in the suffering and dying, in their bodies breaking down, in the overwhelming fatigue and frustration of generous health-care workers, in researchers looking for answers, and even in the dark recalcitrance of some “leaders” in the face of truth. If we are suffering ourselves in some real physical way, especially when it involves pain, this can make the challenge even greater. We are not disposed toward the search. We simply want to retreat, to escape. As well we might and sometimes should. But none of that empties the Resurrection of its meaning; in fact, what we are witnessing and many undergoing only reinforces it. We are now focused on our embodied lives, lives shared across artificial boundaries, and finding among ourselves a common set of hopes and ideals. Like Thomas, we want to touch others where they have been most grievously wounded. We are seeking to overcome fear, and to face the darkness in which we stand, especially through gestures of love. Some of us believe that in so doing we are walking the pathways of hope, of entry into a new creation—a new order for the human race. Or that we are at least rediscovering the patterns that are possible but too easily forgotten when we also lose sight of the full meaning of our shared embodied existence, of the transcendence of the human spirit reaching toward God, and of God’s reaching toward us in the very heart of the sufferings (and joys) that we undergo.