|32 - Second Sunday of Pascha, St Thomas, Apr 27, 2014|
The Church remains in the glow of Pascha for a full eight weeks, all the way to Ascension and to Pentecost. But, we who live in the world must move on from Pascha Night now and return to the world to resume our worldly obligations. And, no doubt, we have already felt the glow of Pascha night fading completely away. We may have found ourselves falling with amazing speed back into the same mind, the same inner atmosphere of the soul that we were in before we entered Great Lent. Holy Pascha now may seem like a distant memory, a surreal dream, and we may have begun to doubt the reality of the spiritual joy we felt that night.
I am anxious that the spiritual gains we made this Great Lent not be lost, that the resolve that began to sprout in our souls to pursue the Way of Christ with greater determination not wither away in the heat of the world’s desert. The gains we made in Great Lent and the ensuing joy that we experienced on Pascha Night need to be consolidated to become the foundation for us to climb higher on the Ladder of divine Ascent, the Ladder of Christ’s Holy Cross.
It says in this morning’s Gospel that the disciples were gathered in the Upper Room on the “same day”, on the First Day of the week. This would be Sunday afternoon, the same day on which Mary Magdalene came to tell them that she had seen the risen LORD at the tomb. Virtually unnoticed – and it would perhaps remain unnoticed (to me) if it were not for the verses of the Pascha canon – is that phrase, “on that first day of the week” which the Paschal canon seems to read as the First day of the New Creation. For indeed, on “that first day of the week” the risen LORD Himself came to the disciples in the Upper Room; and, having left His grave clothes folded neatly and lying in the tomb as though He had divested Himself of the earth that had grown old like a garment (Isa 51:6), and clothed Himself in the new heavens and the new earth (Isa 65:17) of His Holy Resurrection, He stood in their midst, and proclaimed to them: “Peace be to you all!” This looks like the Agape Vespers of Pascha Sunday.
Thomas, however, was not with them – as many of you were not with us for the Agape Vespers last Sunday and some of you not even on Pascha Night! The disciples told St Thomas, “We have seen the LORD!” just as the Church proclaims to us: “We proclaim to you the Word of Life whom we have seen with our eyes, heard with our ears, and touched with our hands!” (I Jn 1:1-4) Thomas replies, “Unless I see the print of the nails in His hands and thrust my hand in the place of the nails and into His side, I will not believe.” Is this not what the worldly mind says in response to the proclamation of the Church? Unless I see the risen Jesus with my own eyes, and touch Him with my own hands, I will not believe that He is risen from the dead or that there is a resurrection from the dead.
Therefore, let us read this morning’s Gospel in light of the risen Savior’s words to Thomas: “Blessed are those who believe, even though they do not see!” For, He is speaking to us this morning who have not seen the risen LORD with our eyes, nor heard Him with our ears, nor handled Him with our hands, as did the holy disciples – except for St Thomas – on “that first day” of the New Creation.
Eight days later, it says – i.e., on the Sunday after Pascha; i.e., this Sunday in the liturgical cycle of Holy Pascha – the disciples were gathered again...within, it says. Is it significant that St John says simply: “within”; and not: “within the Upper Room”? To be sure, St John means to say that they were within the Upper Room; but one wonders if St John simply says “within” because he means to teach us, his readers who have not seen or heard or touched the risen LORD, a deeper lesson about how we come to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead.
This time, it says, Thomas was with them – as all of us are here in the Upper Room of the Church today. And, the doors being closed, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said, “Peace be to all!” This looks like the Divine Liturgy. “The doors being closed”, it says again. One begins to wonder if St John is not emphasizing those doors that are always being closed. Now, this can be translated either as: “While the doors were closed,” or: “Even though the doors were closed,” or even as: “Because the doors were closed.” Together with that word, “within”, and with the teaching of the holy fathers as our guide, one wonders if we should not be looking at the “Upper Room” as an icon of what the Church calls the “prayer of the heart”; as though St John means to signify the vital correspondence between the outer and the inner that obtains especially in the sacramental symbolism or iconography of the Church. If that is so, then we should read that Christ came and stood in their midst because the doors were closed. And, if that is so, then I think I can discern St John telling us how we can come to believe that Jesus is risen from the dead even though we do not “see” the risen LORD with our physical eyes. More than that, He is also telling us how we can keep that belief in our heart so that, believing, we may have life in His Name – not the life of the world that we receive from our parents and that is always dying, but the life of Christ that we receive in the sacramental mysteries of the Church, and which is always destroying death in its dying so that even though we die, yet do we live if we are dying in Him Who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life. (Jn 11:25)
“Because the doors closed, Jesus came and stood in their midst.” That is to say: because the eyes and ears, the doors of the mind that open onto the outside world, had closed in the ascetic prayer of the Church’s worship, all the faculties of the soul had been gathered within in prayerful attention, and the Upper Room, i.e. the mind, the nave of the Church, had grown still and alert in the sacred stillness, hesychia, of the heart, or of the altar in the sanctuary of the Church, in expectation. Note that the first time the disciples had come together on “that first day of the (new) week”, the doors were closed out of fear of the Jews; but this second time, eight days later, on the Sunday after Pascha, St John says nothing about fear of the Jews. The sense is that they were closed this second time in anticipation of the risen Christ coming and standing in their midst as He had done the first time – perhaps like the sacred stillness of expectation that we experienced at the Midnight hour of Pascha Night, “that first Day of the New Creation” when we came into the Church as the myrrh-bearing women coming into the empty tomb and heard the angelic proclamation: “Why do you seek the dead among the living? He is not here! He is risen, as He said!” Death is not here! For Christ is risen! Here, you will find only the eternal life of Christ who is Himself the Resurrection and the Life!
And, on this the eighth Day, Sunday, at the Divine Liturgy, the risen Christ does come to stand in the midst of the disciples. He comes, please note, from the Resurrection beyond the tomb. His Holy Resurrection is in the world, in the heart of man, in the sacramental mysteries of the Church. It is in the world as the Church; as the Church, the Resurrection shines in the world wherever the Church stands. But, it is not of this world; and, it cannot be “seen” according to the ways of the world or by the “eyes” of the worldly mind. You can be looking right at the Resurrection, the Church, and not see it! How many “Christians” do not see it because their eyes are worldly, and how many have denied it because they believe not in what the Church proclaims but in what their own worldly eyes can see?
The curtains of the temple leading into the Holy of Holies, the “icon” of heaven, have been torn open as were the Heavens at the Savior’s Baptism. The inner world and the outer world are no longer cut off from each other. Especially in the sacramental iconography of the Church, the one opens onto the other at the point of Christ’s Cross and in the tomb of Christ, sealed no longer because the stone has been rolled away.
I said that this heavenly reality of Christ’s Holy Resurrection cannot be seen according to the ways of the world or by the eyes of the worldly mind. It can be seen only by eyes of that soul which has denied herself and died for the sake of the Gospel by uniting herself to Christ in the likeness of His death. That means, the Resurrection of Christ can be “seen” only according to the way of the Cross: the way of self-denial, the way of closing the eyes and ears, the doors of the mind, to the images and voices of the world and by the Cross of the Church’s ascetic disciplines – prayer and fasting, confession of sins, obedience to the commandments of Christ – gathering all the faculties within and turning them all, in the broken and contrite heart ofrepentance, to the work of faith, the work ofcleansing the heart in the work of keeping the first and greatest of all the commandments: to love the LORD our God with all our heart, all our soul, all our mind and all our strength. Then do we come to know that the LORD is risen because we have seen Him within, in the inner man, with the eyes of faith, the eyes of the heart, the eyes of that knowledge which surpasses the discursive and dialectical knowledge of the mind because it is the knowledge of participation in God Himself, the knowledge that comes from union with the Bridegroom in the bridal chamber of the heart as a partaker of the divine nature itself in the Resurrection of Christ. (II Pt 1:4)
Beloved faithful: the fast has not ended; it has only changed its form. The outer fast with the stomach is over, for now – although we should still be on guard against gluttony, eating more than we need to. But the inner fast of the soul with the eyes and the ears, the doors of the mind, never ends so long as we are in this life. By keeping the fast in obedience to the Church, by working to put to death what is earthly in us, the joy of the LORD’s Resurrection begins to dawn in our souls, and in the love of God that begins to sprout in the soil of our heart we are able to say with the disciples, “We have seen the LORD,” and to say with St Thomas: “My LORD and my God!” Glory to Thee! Christ is risen!