Joy of All Who Sorrow

Homily on Thomas Sunday

John 20:19-31

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Father, brothers and sisters: Christ is Risen!

I greet you on the day which in the Church Calendar is named both Thomas Sunday and Anti-Pascha. From the Gospel reading we have just heard, the meaning of the first name, Thomas Sunday, should be apparent as we hear the depth of the Risen Lord’s compassion and condescension in His appearance to the Apostle Thomas. But before we examine this Gospel account in more detail, what exactly is meant by this second label for today’s feast – “Anti-Pascha”? This should not be understood to be, as it is first sounds, ‘Anti’ in the sense of ‘against’ which of course would be entirely inappropriate of any Orthodox Christian, but rather ‘Anti’ in the original Greek meaning which means, ‘in the place of Pascha’. Today’s feast is the Eighth day after Pascha and completes the octave of the Feast. Likewise, again counting inclusively, this second Sunday after Pascha is the eighth day after Pascha and renews or rededicates the feast. It is also, in a sense, the first day after Pascha as the whole of Bright Week is understood liturgically as being a continuation of the single day of Pascha. Our Lord’s Resurrection changed everything, so that the main day of the week when believers should gather in worship and prayer together and to celebrate the Eucharist, was not Saturday, the Sabbath day, as it is still is for the unbelieving Jews, but Sunday, the Lord’s day, the day of His holy resurrection, the eighth day from the previous Sunday and the first day of the week, the day in which we also await and celebrate the unending day of the General Resurrection, the first day of Eternity, the day without end. To interpret our Gospel reading today on the appearance of Christ to His Apostles, let us turn to the long commentary of our holy father St Cyril of Alexandria.

Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you.

In his commentary, St Cyril draws attention the fact that after the death of their Master, the disciples were frightened for their own lives that the Jews would come after them. And as subsequent history proves, they were in a sense right to be afraid. Yet despite their fear, and their human attempts to shut everyone out – in comes Christ, Risen from the dead, straight through these solid wooden doors. As St Cyril says –

Notice how by his miraculous entrance through locked doors he shows once again that he is God by nature and that he is none other than the one who lived among them before.

Yet what is so profoundly beautiful about all of Christ post-resurrectional appearances to His disciples is there is never a word of blame, never a word of condemnation or anger for their cowardice and desertion. Instead, what does Christ give to these troubled hearts? The one thing they needed above all else – Peace. For as St Cyril comments –

Wherever Christ is present, tranquility of spirit will surely follow.

And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.

Rather than doing what we fallen humans might do, and start blaming and decrying his disciples, Our Merciful and Loving Lord immediately rushes to help, to save and to teach, proving to them that He has risen from the dead. In this we should see the condescension and Mercy of our Lord –

As it is, however, he is so intent that they should believe in the resurrection of the flesh that even when the moment was right for him to transform his body into ineffable and supernatural glory, he decided in accordance with the oikonomia to appear as he was before, so that he might not be thought to have any other body than the one in which he suffered death on the cross.

When the disciples realized that it was indeed the Lord, the same Jesus they had followed and seen crucified that had risen, then joy fills their hearts. In his commentary, St Cyril reminds of Jesus’ saying, ‘A little while and ye will no longer see me, and again a little while and ye shall see me, and your heart will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’.

The joy of the jews was extinguished, and the lamentation of the holy apostles was turned to joy. Gladness bloomed that could not be lost or taken away.

Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you.

And then we hear our Lord bestowing the Peace upon his disciples for a second time. Commenting on this repetition, St Cyril says –

In so doing he is laying down a law, as it were, on this point for the children of the church. That is why in holy gatherings …we say this to one another at the beginning of the mystery. Afterall being at peace with one another and with God, should be understood as the fountain, as it were, and beginning of every good thing.

Throughout our Divine Liturgy this morning, watch how many times peace is mentioned – ‘In peace let us pray to the Lord’; ‘for the peace from above and the salvation of our souls’; ‘again, and again in peace let us pray to the Lord’; ‘A Mercy of Peace, a Sacrifice of Praise’ … We see in this how essential, how foundational and important peace is to our spiritual life.

After this second bestowal of peace our Lord then sends the disciples out to continue His Mission in the world. And why are they sent?

he says that he has sent them just as the Father sent him, so that they may know from this that they ought to call sinners to repentance, to heal those who are sick – both bodily and spiritually – and in all their actions to seek not their own will, but the will of him who sent them, to save the world, as far as possible, by their teaching.

And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Spirit: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosesoever sins ye retain, they are retained.

Before sending His disciples out into the world to continue His Mission of Salvation, our Lord then bestows the Holy Spirit upon them. This is a very important moment in the Gospel as we see in this that, as St Cyril says –

the Holy Spirit is not alien to the Son but is of the same substance with him and proceeds through him from the Father.

St Cyril also then addresses an apparent contradiction as to when our Lord said He would bestow the Holy Spirit. As we heard during the long reading from St John’s Gospel in the evening of Great & Holy Thursday, our Lord repeatedly said that He must leave the world and return back to the Father, otherwise the Holy Spirit, or the Paraclete, would not come. Yet here, before He has ascended back to Heaven, our Saviour is bestowing the Holy Spirit. In this action, again St Cyril stresses how our Lord always condescends and considers the needs of His apostles as part of His saving economy.

Although there were many things he promised to do at their fitting time in the future, he nevertheless did them for our edification before the appointed time so that we might truly believe that what he said would truly take place … in the same way … although he said he would send us the Paraclete when he returned to the Father, and he defined that time as the moment when grace would come to all and upon all, nevertheless he brought about a kind of first fruits of his promise in the disciples’

Thus at Pentecost, St Cyril continues, ‘when God made a clearer revelation of the Holy Spirit in them, tongues of fire appeared. They did not signify the beginning of the gift of the Spirit in them, but rather they referred to the beginning of the gift of languages.

But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the Lord. But he said unto them, Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Then comes the first mention of Thomas. Poor St Thomas given the unfortunate epithet – “Doubting Thomas” – can often get a rather hard time and compared rather unfavourably with the rest of the Apostolic college. Yet, as we shall see, in his commentary, St Cyril doesn’t defend the common tendency to single out St Thomas as the sole, naughty doubter amongst the apostles. To begin with he tries to help explain the all-too-human and emotional background to his doubt –

I think that the disciple did not so much disbelieve what was told him as much as he was driven to the depths of sorrow because he was not counted worthy to see our Saviour as well.

By divine providence, St Thomas was not present when the other disciples saw the Risen Lord come through the closed doors, but this must have made Thomas rather sad. Maybe he alone would not get to see the Risen Lord.

And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.

This is such a beautiful scene which highlights again, how our Lord condescends and accommodates the needs of each one of his apostles as individual and infinitely precious souls. Although He was not physically present when Thomas made this very detailed and very specific request, as God He fulfils it. Again, St Cyril stresses that the way in which Christ appears first to the ten apostles – minus Judus of course and Thomas, and then unto them all – is all a necessary part of the economy of salvation, to help Thomas and after Thomas, every single Christian believer after him.

I think that the disciple’s temporary lack of faith is very much in line with the economy, so that by his assurance we too who come after him may believe without a doubt that the Son the Father brought back to life the flesh that was nailed to the tree …’

And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

We can thus see that despite being known for his doubt – Doubt didn’t hold the last word for Thomas. Instead his doubt led to a yet bolder belief –

He who had been slow to believe what he ought is now eager to confess it, and in only a short time he is completely healed.

By touching the wounded body of the Risen Lord, He is almost instantly moved to confess His Divinity. In his commentary, St Cyril’s defence or apology for Thomas goes further as he seeks to show that, despite popular representations, Thomas was no more doubting than the other apostles –

Although Thomas alone is recorded as saying, ‘Unless I stretch out my hands and see the mark of the nails and put my hand in his side, I will not believe’. The charge of a lack of faith was common to them all.

To substantiate his thesis, St Cyril turns to this same scene as expressed in St Luke’s Gospel chapter 24:36-43 –

And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, Have ye here any meat? And they gave him a piece of a broiled fish, and of an honeycomb. And he took it, and did eat before them.

As St Cyril says, Do you not see how the thought of unbelief lurks not only in the blessed Thomas, but the mind of the other disciples is sick with this suffering as well.

We can thus see in this that Thomas’ doubt is nothing separate, nothing different from the rest of the apostles. There is though a vicarious nature to St Thomas’ doubt, he doubts on behalf of all the apostles so that we might have faith. As we heard at Vespers last night –

O the good unbelief of Thomas, which hath led the hearts of the faithful to knowledge!

My dear father, brothers and sisters – on this day when we celebrate Christ’s mystical revelation to His apostles through the locked, closed doors, let us also never forget that there is no door, no boulder that our Resurrected Lord will not pass through to reach each of us in our doubt, in our sin and hard heartedness. And just as He came for Thomas, so He comes for each one of us, through the closed doors of our hearts – in our doubts in our despair if only we have the humility, like Thomas, to leave our doubt and admit we were wrong and confess the Truth when it is manifested to us. As it says in the Matins Service for today’s feast –

On this day Spring is fragrant; and the new creation danceth; today the bars have been removed from the doors of disbelief, as Thomas the friend crieth out: Thou art my Lord and God.

Christ is Risen!