|31 St Thomas - April 15, 2007|
There are different words in the Greek language to designate the act of seeing something. In the Gospel we read this morning, the word used throughout to designate the apostles seeing the risen Lord means to see with the physical eyes as opposed, for example, to coming to an intellectual understanding of something. Therefore, in the original Greek of the NT, when the apostles tell Thomas that they have seen the risen Lord, they mean that they have seen him with their physical eyes. They are not speaking metaphorically about having reached a common opinion by the persuasive oratory say, of St Peter – as has been suggested by certain NT scholars in the halls of academia who seem to think a bodily resurrection is too incredulous to the modern scientific mind (these are not Orthodox scholars). And when St Thomas says he will not believe until he sees him and touches him, he is not speaking metaphorically. He is saying, unless I see the risen Lord bodily with my eyes and feel his risen body with my hands, I will not believe.
Using this particular word to describe how St Thomas and the other disciples saw the risen Lord, St John is saying as forcefully as he can that the resurrection of Christ is not a religious metaphor used by the apostles to convey what they saw Jesus’ death to mean in the light of certain OT scriptures. The apostolic preaching of Christ’s bodily resurrection does not proceed from a group hallucination. Nor did the disciples see a ghost. St John is recording this encounter of St Thomas with the risen Lord as the consummation of the many signs performed by Jesus to show that he was raised bodily. The disciples and St Thomas all saw him not in their mind but with their eyes; they felt him with their hands. And him whom they were now seeing with their eyes and touching with their hands was the very same Lord Jesus who was crucified on the Cross, who died and was buried in the tomb. The apostolic testimony on which the Christian faith is founded is the testimony of eye-witnesses: “That which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, this we proclaim to you,” writes St John in his first epistle. And St Peter writes in his first epistle: “We did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved Son with whom I am well-pleased,’ and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain.”
St Thomas’ unbelief was changed to belief because he saw the risen Lord with his eyes and touched him with his hands. The unbelief of St Thomas, then, verifies to those who have not seen the risen Lord with their eyes that the Lord Jesus Christ whom the apostles preach, and whom the faithful worship as God the Word and whose Word the lovers of Christ take up as their Cross is risen from the dead not in religious theory, not as a metaphor of a religious principal, but bodily, in concreto, in flesh and blood reality.
But on what grounds is one to believe this apostolic testimony? How does the unbelief of St Thomas lead the hearts of believers to knowledge, as the Church sings?
This hymn of the Church is all the more provocative because the word for ‘knowledge’ is ‘gnosis’, which refers specifically to knowledge of the ‘unseen.’ The Lord says to St Thomas: “You believe because you have seen. Blessed are those who believe even though they are not seeing [with their eyes].” The hymn of the Church is celebrating the doubt of St Thomas because it leads believers to see the unseen of which the Lord speaks. What is this unseen truth of the Lord that St Thomas came to by seeing, and which believers can come to even though they are not seeing with their eyes? And, how does one come to this knowledge of the unseen without seeing with the eyes?
St Thomas sees the risen Lord with his eyes and says: “My Lord and my God!” The man, Jesus, whom the Church worships is God the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. The humanity of Jesus that could be seen with the eyes of the disciples is the sacred veil of his divinity which cannot be seen with the eyes. On the Feast of Christmas, the Church sings out: “He who is equal in honor with the Father and the Spirit, has from compassion clothed himself in our substance.” The confession of the divine Word’s incarnation teaches us to regard our own visible humanity as the garment, the sacred veil of the invisible God by which he becomes visibly manifest, as the Church sings on the Feast of Christmas. This tells us that what can be seen opens onto the unseen. These earthen vessels of clay, woven with the strands of space and time, open onto the Spirit, who is eternal, everywhere present and filling all things. In this, we are taught to regard our visible bodies, our mind, and our soul as sacred temples of the living, invisible God. One could therefore say that our eyes see the unseen as we treat our bodies, our mind and soul as sacred temples of the living God. We treat our bodies, our mind and soul as sacred through the ascetic disciplines of the Church: fasting with our stomachs, our eyes, our ears, our tongues, our hands, our feet from what is impure, that we may make our bodies, our mind and our soul communicants of life eternal. And this is precisely what the Church teaches us in Holy Scripture, in her saints, and in the Paschal hymn: “Let us purify our senses, and we shall see Christ.” “The pure in heart shall see God,” says the Lord in St Matthew; and St Maximus, commenting on these words of the Lord, says: “The Savior is hidden in the hearts of those who believe in him. They shall see him and the riches that are in him when they have purified themselves through love and self-control; and the greater their purity, the more they will see.”
It says in this morning’s Gospel that St Thomas and the disciples were together again after eight days; the doors were closed, and Jesus came and stood in their midst and said: ‘Peace be unto you!’ This is a picture of the Church in worship at the Divine Liturgy: the faithful gathered together on Sunday, the first day and the eighth day of the week, continuing steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread and in prayers [this is the Eucharist], the doors being closed and the priest, as an icon of Christ, saying to all gathered before the altar, “Peace be unto all!” St Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians that the Church is the body of Christ, the fullness of him who is all in all. That means that the Church is the continuation of the crucified and risen Lord’s incarnation. In everything she says and does, we are hearing with our ears and seeing with our eyes the Christ in his crucified and risen body; and what we see and hear in the Church opens onto the unseen mysteries of the Lord’s crucifixion and holy resurrection. In the worship of the Church, we are seeing with our eyes and hearing with our ears visible and audible icons of the invisible, wordless mysteries of God the Word incarnate. If, then, we wish to see with St Thomas the risen Christ that the icons of the Church are opening up to us, we must come with St Thomas and the apostles and with all the saints into the sacramental worship of the Church and to her holy Eucharist and look with attention on what we see and hear.
Pay attention first to the way by which we come to the Church’s holy Eucharist. First, we submit to the catechetical instruction of the Church. That means we lay aside the wisdom of our own opinions to sit meekly at the feet of our holy Mother, the Church, not as her judges or as her critics, but as her disciples. In her catechism, the Church teaches us her doctrines, but these are centered not in the head but in the heart and they are learned in their fullness by practicing the ascetic disciplines of the Church: prayer and fasting and practicing the commandments of Christ. Then, we are ready, we submit to the sacrament of confession, and then to the sacraments of holy baptism and chrismation. In the sacrament of confession, we lay aside the garments of pride and vanity woven from the fig leaves with which we clothed ourselves in the Garden, to stand before God in nakedness, i.e. in honesty, in our true self. We renounce our self-love with all its deeds, both visible and invisible, out of a desire to come out of ourselves that we may be found in God. In the sacraments of holy baptism and chrismation, we renounce the evil one and all his hosts and all his angels and all his pride and we set our face toward the East in the desire to unite ourselves with Christ. Having united ourselves to Christ, we descend with Him into the waters of our soul that he may put to death the old man in us with its impurities, and that he may deliver us from our bondage to the passions: to gluttony, lust, envy, greed, jealousy, anger, vanity, pride, sloth, and despair. In holy Chrismation, we clothe ourselves with his Holy Spirit by taking up the Cross, the ascetic practice of walking in the commandments of Christ.
You can see how the sacraments of the Church are both visible and invisible. In the materiality of the water, the oil, the garment of light, of turning our bodies to the East, we are rendering the invisible things of the Spirit visible to our eyes. But by submitting to the materiality of the sacraments in humility and reverence, in love of Christ’s holy commandments, the visible covering of the sacraments opens onto the invisible things of the Spirit, which we begin to see in what we experience within. And you can see that the key by which we pass between the outer and the inner in the sacraments of the Church is our will, the desire of our heart.
We may be like St Thomas: “Unless I shall see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” But St Thomas’s desire was to be found in Christ. Was it not he who had said earlier: “Let us go up to Jerusalem with him that we may die with him?” – that’s why he was sure he was with the disciples in the upper room eight days later, in their “Eucharistic” worship. But we may find that our desire to be found in God, even so, is weak, easily overwhelmed by the pride of life and the lust of the flesh that rushes over us in the world of Egypt where we live. So let us be like St Thomas. Let us follow our Lord into Jerusalem, into the Red Sea, and come into the wilderness of the Church, which Christ has made to rejoice and to blossom like the rose; where Christ, our Moses and our Joshua, stands invisibly among us, where we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, where we can see with our eyes, hear with our ears, touch with our hands, taste with our mouth, smell with our nose the invisible realities of Christ in the holy icons of the Church’s liturgical and sacramental worship. We enter into the sacramental and liturgical rites of the Church’s holy icons – not mindlessly, but with attention. Even if we cannot yet see the unseen realities of the risen Christ carried in the Church’s holy icons, we can still submit ourselves to the Church as to the body of Christ, the holy bride of Christ. We can resolve to do as she directs us. Humbly, in meekness and in obedience, we can incorporate her life into our lives, fold our lives into her life, by saying her prayers, reading her Scriptures, practicing the commandments of her Lord and Savior, practicing her ascetic disciplines – not mindlessly, but with attention. In this attitude of faithfulness, like the wise virgins, we keep our lamps trimmed and we wait for the Bridegroom to come at Midnight, when the old passes away and the risen Lord comes to us, unworthy as we are, that we may hear him say to us as the Church says he will say to us, “Rejoice!” and that we may see him in a way beyond seeing, knowing him in a way beyond knowing, worshipping him as our Lord and our God in the spiritual reality of his holy resurrection.
When the apostles reported to St Thomas that they had seen the risen Lord, he said to them: “Unless I shall see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” On this the Sunday after Pascha, the Church celebrates this doubt, even unbelief, of St Thomas; for, “it leads the hearts of believers to knowledge.”