35 Second Sunday of Pascha - May 4, 2008

Acts 5:12-20

John 20:19-31

According to the witness of the Gospels, St Thomas is not the only one among Jesus’ followers who doubts that Jesus was risen. I believe that the Gospel emphasizes this doubt among the followers of Jesus because it is of the greatest significance. Let’s give it close attention.

It is a fact that the central symbol of the religious cults in the ancient world was a Son of God who is born of a Virgin mother, who is slaughtered in the prime of his life, and rises again after three days, like the new moon that reappears in the night sky after three days of darkness. Indeed, perhaps you’ve wondered why so many Christians call Pascha, Easter, since Easter occurs nowhere in the Scriptures. The biblical term is Pascha.[1] Easter is the Anglicized form of Ishtar, the Goddess of ancient Sumer who descends into hell and dies to become a corpse hanging on a tree. After three days, she is raised to life by her uncle, Enki, the God of water, i.e. a Sumerian kind of Holy Spirit.

Since death and resurrection in some form is a universal religious theme, I believe that the doubt of St Thomas and other followers of Jesus speaks to the fact that Jesus’ resurrection is of a wholly unprecedented nature. The resurrection of the ancient pagan mysteries is that of the seed that dies in the winter and rises up in the Spring, or of the newborn that rises to life from the death of the male seed when it is sown in the mother’s womb. In other words, these myths celebrate resurrection as the renewal of life that is inherent to the life-cycle of nature or the attainment of a higher consciousness of one’s own inner essence. The god in these ancient pagan cults of death and resurrection represents the seed or the life-force of this cosmic life; the Goddess represents the field of space-time or of the cosmos, the mother’s womb or the ground in which the seed dies when it unites with the mother’s egg, energizing it so that it becomes a new life. All of this is remarkable enough – but not so remarkable that it evokes doubt or terror in us, as did the Lord’s resurrection even to those who knew him and loved him. Who of you is troubled by the resurrection of life in the Spring, or the birth of a newborn? You may be filled with wonder, but you’re not terrified or disturbed by it. Moreover, the central term in these resurrection myths is death; and the god who is resurrected is always dying again to be resurrected again to die again, and again and again. The life of these resurrection myths is centered on and bounded by corruption and death.

Jesus’ resurrection is not the result of an inherently natural process like the flower blossoming in the Spring. Jesus is raised in a resurrection that destroys death. He is raised bodily; his resurrection is not a religious symbol representing some kind of psychological transformation or altered consciousness. The witness of the Gospel is that the salvation given in Christ’s Holy Resurrection is achieved not by escaping from the body as it is in many other religions, but by sanctifying it and by God raising it from the dead so that even in the body, or rather, precisely in the body one is no longer subject to death. Precisely in his bodily resurrection, Jesus has raised human nature to a reality that is infinitely higher than the highest reality represented by the dying-rising gods of the pagan mystery religions: it is the spiritual reality of eternal life in God the Holy Trinity.

How would one not doubt such a resurrection that is unlike any other the world has ever known? Accordingly, if you honor this doubt, it will point out the way that leads to knowledge of the transcendent reality of God revealed in Christ’s Resurrection.

One is struck in the Gospel witness by the fact the disciples have to go somewhere in order to see the risen Lord: either to the mountain in Galilee that Jesus had appointed to them (St Matthew); or to Emmaus (St Luke); or to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, as in this morning’s Gospel. Each of these places is associated with the revelation of God’s Law to his people and the Holy Eucharist. On the road to Emmaus, Jesus opens to Cleopas and St Luke[2] the meaning of Moses and the Prophets. This is what enables them to recognize him when he breaks bread with them, i.e. in the Eucharist. The road to Emmaus thus becomes an image of Christ in his holy Church leading us to the baptismal font through the Scriptures in order to bring us to his Holy Eucharist where we can see him in his resurrection. St Matthew’s Mountain in Galilee recalls Christ’s Sermon on the Mount; and so it is like Mt Sinai, for the Sermon on the Mount is the Law of God given to the Gentiles as he gave it to the Israelites through Moses. The mountain also recalls the two occasions when Jesus took the bread, broke it and blessed it and gave it to his holy disciples to give to the multitudes, which is charged with Eucharistic overtones. The Upper Room in Jerusalem is where Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples and gave them the New Testament of his body and blood of which all who wish to live are commanded to partake, as Adam and Eve were commanded to eat from the Tree of Life. So you can see why it is that Jesus’ death and resurrection do not destroy but fulfill the Law of Moses and the Prophets. These different biblical places are teaching the same thing: to see the risen Jesus you have to go to where his Word, his Law is taught and rightly explained – which means, as it is explained by the Lord Himself in his Holy Spirit. That would be his one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, because there his Word, his Law is taught in the sacramental and Paschal setting of the Holy Eucharist, which is his very body and blood, which is what the Law of God and the Prophets are all about.

But now consider that the bread and wine of Holy Eucharist are produced from a process of death and resurrection, namely the seed of the wheat and the grape, dying and rising again, transfigured by the hand of man to become bread and wine, just as the death of Jesus was transfigured to become life-creating by the hand of God who raised Jesus from the dead. But here, to me, is the profound significance of the Eucharist as the central “symbol”[3] of the Bible: the ear of wheat and the grape are symbols also of the dying-rising gods of the Ancient Near East. This doesn’t mean  that Christ is another Dionysius or Osiris. It means that when Christ identifies the bread and wine of the Passover meal with himself when he says: “this is my body, this is my blood”, he unites both the Passover of the Exodus and the pagan or Gentile mysteries of death and resurrection to himself. In other words, he unites the central symbols of the religions of the world, both Jewish and pagan, to his own death and resurrection – and so the Exodus of the Jews and the resurrection of the pagan mystery religions are taken up into the mystery of his own mystical Passover and his own bodily Resurrection from the dead to become in him far more than they ever were in themselves: the pagan resurrection is taken up into a Resurrection of the God-man that tramples down death by death and gives life to those in the tombs, and the Passover of the Jews is taken up into a Passover that passes over from the life of this world bounded on all sides by death to the Eternal Life of God bounded on all sides by the “Living Waters” of his Holy Spirit, that fills the Church which, as the body of Christ, is "in the world" though "not of it.

Mountain and Jerusalem are also biblical images of God’s throne from which he rules the world that he made. In the Scriptures, there is a vital connection between the throne of God and the heart of man. The King will sit upon the throne God gives to him if he keeps God’s Law in his heart.[4] This suggests that we come to the Mountain in Galilee or to the Upper Room in Jerusalem, i.e. to the throne of God, as we keep his Word, his commandments in our heart; and this suggests that these different biblical images represent our heart that has been transfigured by Christ’s death and resurrection into the bridal chamber where we become one with God. In the spiritual tradition of the Church, the heart is the Garden of Eden; and the Garden of Eden in the Syriac Christian tradition is a mountain towering over the rest of the world. The heart figures prominently in the Wisdom literature as the seat of love for God and his Law, and Wisdom herself is likened in Proverbs to the Tree of Life,[5] which liturgical texts liken to the Cross. All of this biblical imagery of the risen Lord’s appearances, then, opens onto the mystery of the Garden of Eden and to the Tree of Life that grew in the center of it - or rather, Christ in his holy resurrection is bringing the Garden of Eden and the fruit of the Tree of Life, which is himself, to us. You see how it is that as the Church explains this biblical imagery to us from her Holy Scriptures – that is to say, as Christ explains this biblical imagery to us, for the Church is the body of Christ – we become like Cleopas and St Luke ascending with Christ to Emmaus, to the Mountain, to the Upper Room and to his Eucharistic meal. We are elevated above the letter of the Law and the reasoning of our own opinions and the mythological symbolism of the mystery religions of antiquity into the transcendent, spiritual reality of the Law, whose spiritual essence is the mystery of Christ’s death and Holy Resurrection.

This means that when we eat the Holy Eucharist, we are eating the reality of Christ’s life-creating death and his terrible and wondrous resurrection, as Adam and Eve were commanded to eat it in the Garden, but they never got to it because they chose to eat the fruit of a different tree. In Holy Eucharist, we eat what the Scriptures are all about; we eat what creation is all about; we eat what we are all about. And we become the temple of God in whom his Word, the Lord Jesus Christ, dwells as we eat and drink the body and blood of the crucified and risen Lord Jesus, in whom the fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily.

If we are choosing, then, to eat and drink the Word of God, we are choosing much more than to eat some symbolic bread and wine. We are choosing not to eat from the tree of good and evil. That means that we are choosing to follow after Christ’s commandments, so that it is the Wisdom of Christ and not the wisdom of the serpent shaping the knowledge of our understanding. It means that we are choosing to crucify the passions of our flesh to the Cross of Christ through prayer and fasting so that it is the Spirit of Christ and not the lustful and gluttonous desires of our belly shaping our inner life. Because, when we eat and drink Holy Eucharist, we have eaten and drunk the very essence of the Scriptures themselves. Their essence becomes our essence. But if their essence is the life-creating death of Christ; and if, having partaken of the death of Christ that destroys death, we continue to choose the life of the world that is dead in its trespasses, and so therefore the very death that Christ destroyed by his death, how are we not eating and drinking this Paschal and Eucharistic death-destroying death of Christ to our destruction and our condemnation? But if we are choosing to unite ourselves to the likeness of Christ’s death, which destroys death, are we not choosing to live in that death of Christ by which the world has been re-created and raised up, restored to its original goodness through Christ’s Holy Resurrection? Do you see that if we are living and walking in the way of Christ’s commandments, then Christ’s life-creating death and his Holy Resurrection that we eat in Holy Eucharist become our very being. We are becoming spiritual and beginning even now to participate in the mystery of his life-creating death and his Holy Resurrection. And the more we die in Christ by eating his body and drinking his blood not just by eating his body and blood but by walking in the way of his commandments, the more it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us.

Therefore, when the Lord says to St Thomas: "Blessed are those who believe without seeing," it would seem that he is saying to him and to us: if you will study my Holy Scriptures in order to learn and to keep my commandments that are contained in them, then you will come to see me without seeing because you won’t be looking at me as something outside of you but as your very life.

Of course, if the Church is the body of Christ, that means that we see Jesus at every divine service with our physical eyes in the liturgical movements and rites of the worship. We hear Jesus with our physical ears in the words read from the Scriptures and in the prayers of the Church, which are taken from the Scriptures, and in the liturgical texts, which are meditations on the Scriptures. So we, too, like the first disciples, see and hear the risen Lord Jesus with our physical eyes and ears. But we won’t come to that belief in him that is without seeing, i.e. we won’t see him in his resurrection, even though we eat and drink the bread and wine of his Holy Eucharist, until we begin to walk in the way of his commandments, and to treasure his Word in our heart in order to keep it and to do it, so that it becomes our very life. Amen.

Christ is risen! 

[1] Easter occurs once in The King James, Acs 12:4; but the word translated as Easter is not Easter but Pascha.

[2] See note in Orthodox Study Bible for Lk 24:13, p. 1415.

[3] In the sense of the Greek, sumbwlon – the union of two realities: God and man in the Person of Christ.

[4] E.g. I Kgs 2:4; 3:6; 2 Kgs 10:30; Jer 3:17

[5] Proverbs 4:20