One of the great joys of being in the Catholic Church is that the Church is, well, Catholic: there is so much variety united in one. Today in many of our Eastern fellow Catholic Churches it is Easter, which we in the Roman Catholic Church celebrated a week ago. That means that all last week has been their Holy Week, and I have been accompanying them in this week’s journey to the Cross at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral near Bond Street here in London.
They not only follow a different calendar from the Latin Catholic Church; the pattern of the services is quite different. Whereas on Maundy Thursday, the Roman Catholics enact the events around the Last Supper in the evening, followed by a watch until midnight, the Greek Catholics have a great liturgy commemorating the washing of feet and the institution of the Eucharist earlier in the day, and in the evening begins the preparation for the events of Good Friday. This is followed by a procession of a large Cross which is then put up before the altar. The following evening another procession marks the taking down of Jesus from the Cross, and a cloth bearing the image of the dead Christ is carried round, before it is laid to rest at the foot of Calvary, just like it was in Jerusalem. People in great lines wait their turn to kneel down and kiss it, much as we in the Western Church kiss the Cross on Good Friday. At a third procession on Saturday night, the priests and people arrive to find the Church doors thrown open like the Empty Tomb itself. Within, the doors in the icon screen across the sanctuary remain open through the days of Easter to show that “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling death by death and to those in the tombs giving life.” Those words are a hymn constantly repeated throughout Eastertide.
But let us retrace the steps we have made in our minds on those three processions and go back to the night of Holy Thursday. The service is very long – at least two and a quarter hours. To look at the words of the service you see readings, psalms, prayers and those many imaginative short hymns and verses that characterise the Byzantine rite of the Church. You would think, to look on it on paper, that this would be a very drawn out liturgy. But it is packed, as the excitement mounts with more and more movement. During the hymns and prayers there is incensing of the altar, the icons, the clergy and the people; meanwhile people make their Easter confessions and come and venerate the images and the Cross. But all holds still while the clergy come out of the sanctuary to stand among the people and read the Scriptures. There are twelve readings from the Gospel. For each one in the Ukrainian Church, a different coloured vestment is worn, getting darker, as in each passage, the events unfold and Christ moves closer and close to his condemnation; and in the end we hear of His Passion for our sake.
The reason I am describing all this is because of the first Gospel reading of twelve, which sets the scene. At the Eucharist earlier in the day, we had heard the Gospel of the foot-washing and the desertion of Judas from chapter 13 of St John’s Gospel. Now, as night falls, the bishop comes out and reads all of chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17. In other words, we hear all in one go the vast talk Jesus gave to His disciples on the night of His betrayal. Everything He says is to help the disciples understand what is about to happen. It ends with Christ’s High Priestly prayer, in which He asks the Father to keep His flock safe and together, and also that in the Cross’s Work of Sacrifice that He is about to offer the Glory of God as He truly is may be radiant.
So much of Jesus’ talk to the Apostles, so that they may see this imminent glory, is familiar to us; we hear it at other times of the year. In these chapters we find Jesus describing Himself as the Way, the Truth and the Life; here is St Thomas asking how we could know the way that Jesus is going. Here is the Lord saying that in His Father’s house are many rooms. We hear, too, His promise of divine love, if we would but keep His commandments; His pledge to send the Holy Spirit to us to lead us into all truth; His saying, “I leave you peace, my peace I give you”; and another saying that He is the True Vine and we are His branches. Then there is the enigmatic saying that in a little while we will not see Jesus and then in a little while we will, as sorrow turns to joy, that we are accustomed to reflect on when Ascension Day comes. There is the prayer that we will be one as the Father and the Son are one, in the midst of dangers and hatred of the flock; and then again He speaks more on the Spirit of truth, peace and love that usually we concentrate on at Pentecost. Yet all the passages come from one continuous talk on the night before the Lord went to His death. In our Roman Catholic Church, we spread it out over the whole of Eastertide, as we seek to make sense of what is said following the Resurrection. In our Byzantine Catholic Church, we do it the other way round, as we make sense of what Christ is telling us in the clear knowledge of what is about to happen on the Cross and the Tomb. It is truly remarkable to hear those four whole chapters of St John’s Gospel read addressed to us who are His disciples following in their footsteps.
Thus in our company, there is Peter asking his questions and betraying Christ, like we do; there is Philip with his thoughts too. Today in the Latin Church, we think particularly of Thomas’ bearing witness to Christ’s real Resurrection in the flesh. But when we read the great sweep of the Gospel from chapter 13 on the eve of Good Friday through to chapter 20 today, we can see how brilliantly the story has been set out by St John, and with what purpose every word was uttered and every succeeding moment in the plan was arranged by the Lord Himself. For right at the beginning, and right at the end, is St Thomas.
In the west, we think of him as Doubting Thomas; but to the east he is also the faithful witness to the truth of the Resurrection. The Lord had told the apostles that they would be scattered to their homes, but that they were to wait on the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to rest in the Lord’s own gift of peace, and to stay firmly attached to the Vine as branches integral to it, even in the midst of unbearable hardship and sorrow. “In a little while you will not see me, and again a little while you will see me,” he had said; and then the sorrow will turn to joy. This is exactly what faithful St Thomas did. It was not his to accompany Jesus to the very end like the Mother of God and the Disciple whom Jesus loved, St John; it was not for St Thomas to go to the Praetorium in the shadows and then to betray his master like St Peter. No; St Thomas’ part was to be scattered and to wait, until the Holy Spirit came to lead him into all the truth about Jesus.
Think of it. The story begins in the Upper Room and Jesus tells the disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in Me: in My Father’s house are many rooms. I am going to prepare you a place so that where I am going you can be too. You know the way to the place where I am going.” It is Thomas that asks, “How can we know the way?” Jesus is speaking of the Way of the Cross that is the only path to eternal life; but Thomas is unable to foresee this at this point. Later on, Jesus tells the apostles that soon they will be convinced; soon He will be able to speak to them in a way that they instantly understand and the need for questions will have passed. And so it turns out: the Lord Who told His apostles that, after treading His path to the Cross, He would take them to the many rooms in His Father’s house, on the eighth day enters the locked and barred Upper Room, coming this time not towards the Cross, but from the life of Resurrection. This time, Thomas, who has been waiting until led by the Holy Spirit to come and witness to the truth, asks no questions. Instead, seeing the Risen Lord, he declares Him, “My Lord and My God”.
In St Thomas Aquinas’ great hymn to the Lord in His Eucharistic Presence, if we use Gerard Manley Hopkin’s translation, he says, “I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see”. But it is St Thomas we are like more than any other apostle.
We are accustomed to think of our life, even our life in Christ, as a series of experiences, relationships, incidents, changes, growth, adversity, achievement, decline - all leading from birth to their end in death. We imagine our life - as we should - as taking up our Cross daily to follow Him, until we unite with Him in His Passion at the end of our own lives. We hope for eternal life beyond; but we are missing the point of walking the way of the Cross with Christ, if we think our ultimate destination in life is our death like His. For unlike Thomas and Peter and John and Philip, we know what is coming. The Lord Who has walked beside us as we take up our Cross, the Lord Who has led us as we trace His footsteps and hope to “follow duly in them plant our own” we suddenly find is not where we expect Him to be. Suddenly, He is no longer beside us, nor we behind Him as we persevere in hope towards the end in death, for He is now coming towards us with from His Resurrection.
It is as though all our lives we have been searching, going on perpetual processions of questioning. We end up in a locked upper room, bemused by the undeniable belief we have and the words of Jesus as they all come back to us, yet trying to make sense of it only as it relates to the world’s dimension . Has He come back to life from the dead? Is He a ghost? Is it just my belief and wishful thinking? Or does a crucified and dead human being now turn the meaning of material and spiritual life on its head, because His resurrection in the flesh remakes the rules of the entire created order? Our locked upper room, is like being inside the sealed tomb, expecting Christ to be long dead among us, while we fumble in the dark. Then into it comes the Lord in His Resurrection – it is not that He shines His light in, but that we peer out and adjust to the dawn in another realm and then find ourselves transported into living in it. As the Angel said, “Why seek the living among the dead?” Thus we do not come to the Resurrection at the end; it comes to us from the beginning. Here is where St Thomas finds himself. He has heard the Spirit within him and with his touch he sees the meaning of the wounds and recognises the Resurrection, “the Light of every one, coming into the world”.
As for me and you: I am like Thomas; I see the wounds. I ask the Way. I am shown the Light. I behold what is coming towards me. I recognise the Resurrection. I behold the Lord in the breaking of the Bread. My breath amazes me as I hear it say, “My Lord and my God.”