15 April 2018

Second Bethlehem: Homily for the Sunday of Thomas, Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family, London, 15th April 2018

It used to be said that everyone could remember where they were when they heard that Senator Robert Kennedy had been shot. I vividly recall how it stunned my family at home near the sea in Lancashire, coming a mere five years after the killing of his brother, President John Kennedy. I was eight, and I remember how deep the adults’ grief was, that the chance of having back again their hope and optimism with a second, youthful and dynamic President Kennedy had been dashed all over again. It was all so affecting that I went to write it down: “Senator Robert Kennedy has been assassinated.”  At least, I intended to, but I gave up because I did not whether Senator began with an S or a C.

I wonder where St Thomas was when he heard the news of the Lord’s resurrection. We know that all the disciples apart from His Mother and St John had run away from His passion and death, Thomas among them. They will not have known that from His Cross the Lord founded a second Bethlehem, in which John - the last man standing, as it were - was told to take Mary into his own house and give her a home as her own son, and that Mary was told to be the Mother-of-God to this new household of faith as she had been at Nazareth. She who had taken refuge in a stable to give birth because there was no room at the inn, for a second time has no place until she is taken in by a new family to a new house. It is to this home of his that John outruns Peter from the Emptied Tomb, to bring news that the Lord is risen. And surely the first to hear must be his newly appointed Mother.

Thomas comes to this new stable for faith, this new Bethlehem, late. It is not so much that he disbelieves or doubts the others; he wants to believe not on other people’s account, but for himself. He wants to participate in what they have witnessed direct. So he who withheld belief is made to wait. He believes enough still to be with the other disciples, when there is no guarantee that the Risen Lord will ever come again. Yet on the eighth day the faithful and the waiting are all confirmed. Perhaps the room in which they have been gathering behind locked doors is in the home of John and the Mother of God – after all, no other house is the scene of events by this stage in the Gospel (John 20.19-31). If so, then it would be that, once again, the Mother of God makes a home for the coming of the Lord, Jesus Christ, in the flesh. The first time was in the Cave-Stable at Bethlehem; the second from out of the Cave-Tomb into the first household of the Church in Jerusalem.

This double impact of the coming of God-with-Us, at His birth and then His resurrection out of death, strikes every time we celebrate the Eucharist. Why is it - you may ask - that at the Divine Liturgy, after the invocation of the Holy Spirit and the consecration of the Gifts of Bread and Wine that makes them into the Body and Blood of Christ, we offer incense during the hymn that blesses the Mother of God? But we are not diverting attention to Mary away from Christ: we are concentrating all our attention on a new manifestation of the Incarnation of our Saviour in the Body and the Blood. “It is truly right to bless you, Mother of God,” we sing, because “you have given birth to God the Word”, and this God the Word is on the altar; and we offer praises and incense at His presence as once the angels sang and the Wise Men, like we still do, offered frankincense and myrrh in vessels of gold.  Throughout the season of Pascha in our Divine Liturgy, we sing a new song, that takes us with Mary from the stable-cave in the first Bethlehem to the grave from which the Lord has burst forth in the flesh that was crucified to a new birth. But the song goes even further, for, as the Mother of God and as mother to the whole household of faith, she rejoices at the prospect of the resurrection of us all. “The angel cried out,” we sing, “Rejoice! Your Son has risen from the tomb and raised the dead. Now let all people rejoice! Shine, shine, Jerusalem! – for the glory of the Lord” - the glory that once overshadowed Mary at the annunciation of Emmanuel-  “has risen upon you!” Thus the Mother of God takes delight in the Resurrection of her Son, because His presence in the fesh, the presence made known in the Breaking of the Bread which we worship at every Liturgy, is the Resurrection of John, of Peter, of Thomas, of all the other apostles and disciples from Mary Magdalene to every single one of you here today.

But now let us go even deeper into the mystery that Thomas touched and touched him back. Earlier in the Liturgy are two prayers that it is very easy to miss. These are the prayers after the Litanies said with the catechumens present, the prayers of the Small Litanies after their dismissal, before the Eucharistic Mystery can be revealed in the communion of the faithful. The first prayer describes a new attitude to being at the Altar. We have already been standing there to offer prayers; but now we stand there to bring the supplication of the great sacrifice for the sake of the people. It asks the Holy Spirit that the priests will be beyond reproach and pure, “without stumbling”. This strongly reminds us of psalm 120, which begins, “I will lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence comes my help; my help comes from the Lord, Who made heaven and earth.” From this inspiring vista, it continues: “Behold, He that watches over Israel … will not allow your feet to stumble.” St Paul echoes this thinking when he describes those who cannot understand that the Cross is the instrument of God’s glory and victory, rather than a comprehensive defeat at the hands of death. He calls them scandalised by the Cross. A scandal in Greek is not a notorious subject of gossip, but simply an obstacle that we trip over, a stumbling-block that brings us face down to the earth so that we cannot see up. Paul had had this very experience of being blind to Christ that reached its crisis point on the road to Damascus, when he was arrested by his vision of the risen Christ. So this one prayer not to stumble, in sin or in faith, takes us right up to the altar of the Cross – but preserves us from blindness to the glory of what is achieved there by Christ’s sacrifice and to the Shining of the New Jerusalem that we live in because of Christ’s presence, victorious over the grave.

The second prayer asks that we be permitted to stand uncondemned before the Altar, to grow in spiritual living, and to be worthy of the Kingdom. The contrast between stumbling, of tripping over the Cross and falling to our faces so that we cannot see up to God’s purpose and mercy, and then standing up with Christ in the resurrection does not mark some kind of dramatic difference, but the natural progression of the new creation led by the hand of grace. We are held up from stumbling; we are uncondemned because of the goodness and worthiness of Christ the spotless Lamb; we are made to be able to stand as Christ stood up in abundant new life after being laid low by defunct old death; and at last we are now led into the Kingdom.

Imagine that this is the journey of Thomas on that first eighth day after the Resurrection. From not seeing the Risen Lord for himself, he grasps what the Lord has said cannot be held onto because it must take us beyond this life to that of the Father. (He had said to Mary Magdalen, “Do not hold me, for I must ascend to the Father”: he did not say, “Do not grasp hold of what will take you to the Father following after me.” And so these centuries of “eighth days” later, we do the same. We remember exactly where we were when he heard the news of Christ’s resurrection, for we hear it every single Sunday we are in Church. Here we are about to place our hands in the wounds and side of the Lord, as he places his precious Body and Blood into the very depths of our souls. We who would touch and hold on to Christ, are touched and held by Him. Blessed John Henry Newman said, “I am a Catholic by virtue of my believing in a God, and if I asked why I believe in a God, I answer that it is because I believe in myself, for I feel it impossible to believe in my own existence …  without believing in the existence of Him, who lives as Personal, All-seeing, All-judging Being in my conscience.” (Apologia 198) Neither Thomas nor Mary believed in an idea or a theory, or an article of religion. They believed in a person. Was He risen from the dead or not; did they trust Him, or did they not? Everything about them, and everything about living their lives and the universe, proceeds from the one-word answer to those two questions. They believed in a person whose life, death and resurrection had entered into every corner of their very existence. Remember where you were, and where you stand, when you believed that Christ risen from the dead is not risen in a room in a house 2000 years ago, but the One who is the life rising in you, the person in your person, the sight in your sight, the conscience in your conscience, the being in your being. Therefore everything follows from this:

Christ is risen: Hristos voskres: Christos aneste.