In many parts of the Church, this Sunday has a nickname: “Doubting Thomas Sunday.” It is not a nickname that lends itself to cheerful greetings on Hallmark cards quite like “Happy Easter!” – but it is arguably more compelling than another name this Sunday goes by: Low Sunday. “Low Sunday,” originally for more noble reasons, but these days because churchgoers customarily take the Sunday after Easter Sunday off, stay in bed, which only helps the Church forget that Easter season is fifty days – that’s right, a full ten days longer than that seemingly interminably long season called Lent. What can I say? Guilt and self-loathing come more naturally to Christians, I suppose, than grace and resurrection. Too bad. But I digress. Doubting Thomas Sunday it is.
Because we read this same gospel lesson every Doubting Thomas Sunday, we may come here expecting that we know what to expect. That is, we know that the gospel appointed for Doubting Thomas Sunday is about Doubting Thomas. Makes sense. Only, today I want to suggest that knowing that this story is Thomas’ story keeps us from seeing something far more curious, more disturbing, than Thomas’ doubt that Jesus has been raised from the dead (a forgivable doubt, if ever there was one). The truly strange thing in this gospel is that, one week after Jesus reveals himself to the other disciples, they are still here, in this same darned room, locked behind the doors.
What are they doing?
As one scholar succinctly puts it, “They proclaim the Easter message, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ but their actions do not fully match their understanding.”
The story gets more difficult before it gets easier. Next week we’ll find the disciples fishing – that’s right, as in, the thing they did before Jesus called them to be disciples in the first place – even after Thomas has seen Jesus’ hands and his feet and his side.
We are told that doubting Thomas is “the Twin,” and we certainly discover a kind of kinship with him when we hear Jesus say to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe." (It’s as if Jesus is giving us a shout-out at the end of the story.) And yet, I am struck that we also share a kinship with the other ten disciples – insofar as we too proclaim the Easter message, but our actions do not fully match our understanding. We find ourselves wondering, “What does it mean to believe?”
I returned yesterday from three days at a theology conference on the topic of Christian Political Witness, where three-hundred-some-odd of us gathered together to admit that we do not always know what it looks like to believe and that being Easter people with Easter actions – that is, actions that proclaim the crucified and risen Lord in all aspects of life, including politics – is hard.
To name the obvious, Christ’s victory over death does not always find concrete expressions in our lives. That is, we’re still learning. And the lesson of tonight’s gospel is that God is patient with his People as they learn. Because Jesus’ resurrection changes everything, whether we get it or not, we discover that we are unpacking a gift that overcomes even our failures to receive it. Christ is risen from the dead.
This same dynamic is true at our baptism, in which, for all of the promises made in that moment, the promise and action definitive of the moment – the promise and action that become definitive of us in that moment – belong to God. Sealed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own. A gift. This gift brings life; the gift also challenges our prior identities. In other words, after baptism, “Texan” is not the most determinative thing that can be said about me. Them’s fightin’ words in some parts, and thus, how baptism quickly becomes political. The opening of the gift (and challenge) of baptism means our admission as babes to the feast of the living Christ; where he is our food and our strength, by which we grow into his likeness. Our parents used to tell us “you are what you eat.” This is our prayer.
So the stories we receive in the weeks after Easter Sunday – 1) the disciples disbelief at the outset when the women say to them, “We have seen the Lord”, 2)Thomas and his defiance, 3) next week’s fishing on the boat – all remind us that the first disciples – and we, like them – grow only with God’s help into our witness of the risen Christ.
Like Thomas, we did not expect the risen Lord, and so our response is not ready. Like Peter, we say yes to God and cannot know what we are saying yes to. But our not knowing what we are saying yes to does not undo God’s yes for us. Moreover, God’s yes for us gives us, the Church, all that we need to be God’s people, proclaiming Jesus risen from the dead.
It is not easy. Like any calling worth being called to, it feels strange starting out. Like learning a new instrument, it’s going to take some practice. Like learning a new instrument, it’s going to take a steadfast commitment to fail. Over and over and over, until one day, as if miraculously, the thousand tiny steps and butchered chords add up… And the name for this practice is Church.
Which brings me, finally, to one other name this Sunday goes by. I just learned it this past week. Thank you, Wikipedia. The other name for the Sunday after the first Sunday of Easter is Quasimodo Sunday. [Parenthetically: Yes, Quasimodo, that one-eyed, hunchback of Notre Dame is a namesake of this day. In Victor Hugo’s novel, the malformed and abandoned child was found by his adoptive father on the cathedral’s front steps the Sunday after Easter. Today.] The name “Quasimodo” comes from the first two words, in Latin, of the verse from 1 Peter with which the liturgy for the eighth day of the Easter celebration begins. This is the verse: Like newborn babes, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.
This language of taste and God’s goodness is right on because, in some traditions of the Church, those baptized at the Easter Vigil would receive their first communion today. Jimmy’s baptism and first communion tonight recall this pattern for us. Thus Easter reveals Jesus as the firstborn of creation, while we are reborn as children – babes, even – craving spiritual milk, so that we may grow up in our salvation, having tasted that the Lord is good.
Quasimodo Sunday presents us, like Thomas and the disciples, as babes in this resurrection faith, but without embarrassment at our infancy and early missteps. Instead, on this day we become like the children Jesus says we must become if we are to inherit the Kingdom of God.
Young, weak, and unprepared, the Church is found by Christ. And in this very weakness we discover permission, hope, the freedom, to grow into the likeness and full stature of Jesus. “My Lord, and my God,” Thomas says when Christ finds him. And his joy, tonight, is ours, too.
Homily, St. Francis House, 4.7.13, on the occasion
of the baptism of SFH student James P. Cheng.