A Voice From The Isles:
The reading today from the Gospel of St John tells us a strange story, certainly strange to the disciples of Jesus Christ, and even today a bit strange to us. Let us imagine that we are with those disciples in a locked room somewhere in Jerusalem in the year AD 33—nearly 2,000 years ago—knowing that Jesus Christ has died but not knowing that He plans to return to us. Yes, yes, I know, in the week since Jesus Christ was crucified at least four people have been to the tomb and found it empty—the Holy Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene and Peter and Mark. Mary Magdalene has even seen Jesus Christ who has told her: “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”; but go to the brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your father, and My God and your God.’” But what does all this mean? How is Jesus Christ going to come back to life, when we know He died on the cross?
The Gospel of St John is quite clear. It is Sunday evening, “the first day of the week”, and we have all gathered together in great sadness in a locked room, because after all, we know Jesus is dead and we are afraid for our safety and our future. In Homilies of the Gospel of John, St John Chrysostom has said that “it was likely that when the disciples heard these things [about Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus alive] they would either not believe the woman—or if they did believe her, they would be sad that He had not considered them worthy of such a vision even though He had promised to meet them in Galilee.” It is sometimes hard, isn’t it, when someone else—especially a woman in the first century who knew she was a sinner and repented—receives a magnificent vision of Jesus Christ in glory, and you have been ignored? Even today we at times wonder why someone else appears to be more favoured by God than we are. Yet God loves us all.
As far as the disciples in this locked room are concerned, the prospects for their future are grim. The fourth century preacher and Archbishop of Ravenna, Italy, St Peter Chrysologus, has given us a clear picture of the minds of the disciples. In Sermon 84 he preaches: “The extent of the terror [of the disciples] and the disquiet caused by such an atrocity [as the crucifixion] had simultaneously locked the house and the hearts of the disciples and had so completely prevented light from having any access that for their senses, overwhelmed more and more by grief, the murkiness of the night increased and became more pervasive. No darkness of night can be compared with the gloom of grief and fear because [fear and grief of such depth] are incapable of being tempered by any light of either consolation or counsel.”
What happens in the midst of this consuming sadness among the disciples—and among us, if Jesus really has died and does not intend to return? Despite the locked doors, Jesus suddenly and very unexpectedly comes into the room in which we are all gathered; and he says to us, “Peace to you—Shalom, in Hebrew”—the normal greeting among first century Jews. The prophet Daniel reports in the Old Testament book of Daniel, Chapter 10, that he had received a vision of the Messiah who had greeted him with the same words, “Peace to you [Daniel], take courage and be courageous.” When Daniel heard those words spoken to him in Persia in the sixth century before Christ, Daniel said, “Now as soon as [the Messiah] spoke to me, I received strength and said, ‘May My Lord speak, for You have strengthened me.” The disciples perhaps felt the same way, for they had fled when Jesus was arrested. Now they were awed by the presence of Jesus and His friendly greeting, “Shalom”. We too can be encouraged, even if neither the disciples nor we understand how Jesus Christ is talking to each of us again, when He died at three in the afternoon on Friday; and it is now Sunday night, more than a week later.
Another fourth century Church Father, St Gregory of Nyssa offers us a profound reflection on what is happening in this first week after Jesus Christ has been crucified. St Gregory writes in The Great Cathechism: “[Jesus Christ] did not remain in death’s power. The wounds that His body had received from the iron of the nails and the spear offered no impediment to his rising again. After His resurrection He showed Himself whenever He wanted to His disciples. When He wished to be present with them, He was in their midst without being seen, needed no entrance through open doors. . . All of these occurrences, and whatever other similar facts we know about His life, require no further argument to show they are the signs of deity and of a sublime and supreme power.” Now, in 2012, that “sublime and supreme power” remains present for us as it was for the disciples in AD 33.
So here we are in a locked room in Jerusalem with Jesus suddenly present among the disciples and among us. What are the disciples going to do? How are we going to react to the Jesus Christ who has not yet ascended to heaven in glory?
Jesus Christ understood that both the disciples and us would be puzzled about how to react to Him after the crucifixion. What did Jesus do? He told the apostle St Thomas and us: “Reach here with your finger, and see My hands; and reach here with your hand and put it into My side; and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” And the apostle St Thomas was empowered by this remarkable encounter with Jesus Christ to overcome unbelief and to say to Jesus: “My Lord and my God.” In a Commentary on the Gospel of St John, the fifth century Patriarch of Alexandria, St Cyril of Alexandria, reminds us that here in this locked room Jesus Christ “was no phantom or ghost, fashioned in human shape” but, as St Thomas and we discover, Jesus Christ has, as St Cyril says, “indeed risen again, and risen in the flesh.”
Let me conclude with the words of St Cyril of Alexandria as he struggles to explain to us how important this visit from Jesus Christ in the fullness of his crucified body remains for us today: “Christ still visits us and appears to us all, both invisibly as God and visibly in the body,” reflects St Cyril. [Jesus Christ] allows us to touch His holy flesh and gives it to us. For through the grace of God we are admitted to partake of the blessed Eucharist, receiving Christ… [so] that we may firmly believe that He did in truth raise up the temple of His body…
Participation in the divine mysteries, in addition to filling us with divine blessedness, is a true confession and memorial of Christ’s dying and rising again for us and for our sake. Let us, therefore,” suggests St Cyril, “after touching Christ’s body [through receiving that body in the Eucharist], avoid all unbelief in Him as utter ruin and rather be found well grounded in the full assurance of faith.” That, I believe, is what we and the disciples received in that locked room in Jerusalem—“the full assurance of [Christian] faith,” Each time we receive the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, let us say silently from our hearts with St Thomas, “My Lord and my God.”
And so we ascribe as is justly due all might, majesty, dominion, power, praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, always now and ever and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.