A sermon preached at St. Silouan of Athos Chapel at St. Gregory of Sinai Monastery on April 27, 2014, by Hierodeacon Moses, with the blessing of His Grace, Bishop Sergios of Portland, Igoumenos of the Monastery.
In today’s Gospel reading we have two appearances of Christ to his apostles. In the first appearance Thomas is not present; the apostles then tell Thomas about their visitation of Christ, and Thomas expresses doubt, saying that he must see Christ for himself. Then eight days later we have the second appearance of Christ, with Thomas present. Christ invites Thomas to touch him, he does so, and expresses belief. Also note this other curious little fact: in both cases it says that Christ appeared to the apostles while the doors were shut.
Recently, I heard an interview with the author Barbara Ehrenreich, who describes herself as a fourth-generation athiest, yet has some interest in spirituality. In this interview she touches on some of the issues present in today’s Gospel. She says:
Why believe when you can know? ... Look, let me just say this about religions. The religions that fascinate me and, you know, could possibly tempt me are not the ones that involve faith or belief. They're the ones that offer you the opportunity to know the spirit or deity.1
Now as Christians we might be thinking: she’s ready for Christianity, it’s all about knowing Christ – but she’s not thinking along those lines, as she goes on to say:
And these are religions - well, I think most readily of West African derived religions, which involve ecstatic rituals, where people actually apprehend the spirit or the god or whatever that they are invoking and that they are trying to contact. I have respect for that, but don't ask me to believe anything.2
She is representative of our current culture, a culture which denigrates belief. Note how she contrasts knowledge against belief when she says, Why believe when you can know? But today’s Gospel presents a different picture, today’s Gospel links belief with empirical knowledge, knowledge that is based on, concerned with, or verifiable by observation or experience rather than theory or pure logic.3
In the Gospel, Thomas demands empirical evidence when he says:
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.
And then Christ comes and says:
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.
And so, Thomas demands an experience, and Christ gives it to him. In his Commentary on this Gospel Saint Theophylact of Ochrid says that Christ expresses His humility in this – He allows himself to be probed and touched, His wounds to be examined.
In the Vigil for this Sunday, at the Aposticha of Vespers, there are two hymns that elaborate on this:
O strange wonder, unbelief hath engendered steadfast faith! For Thomas said: Except I see, I will not believe. But when he had touched that side, he confessed the Divinity of Him Who was incarnate, that He is the very Son of God; he recognized Him to be the One that had suffered in the flesh; he preached the Risen God, and cried with a clear voice: O my Lord and my God, glory be to Thee.
O strange wonder, that grass should touch fire and be preserved! For when Thomas thrust his hand into the fiery side of Jesus Christ our God, he was not burned by the touching. For he ardently changed the obstinacy of his soul into ready faith, and cried out from the depths of his soul: My Master art Thou and my God, Who art risen from the dead. Glory be to Thee.
The line in the second hymn, that grass should touch fire, brings to mind a few other references. The first is the Prayer Before Communion, assigned in the prayer books to be said immediately before receiving Holy Communion:
Behold, I approach Divine Communion; O Maker, burn me not as I partake, For Fire art Thou which burneth the unworthy. But purify Thou me of every stain.
And this in turn references the passage in Isaiah which says:
Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips:for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.
And then the prayer that is assigned immediately after we take communion repeats this last verse from Isaiah:
Behold, This hath touched thy lips, and will take away thine iniquities, and will purge thy sins.
So, these hymns from Vespers bring to mind these references to Christ being a fire which burns away our iniquities and therefore to Holy Communion. These hymns are linked to Thomas’s personal encounter with Christ, and the hymns end by repeating Thomas’s confession of faith and belief.
How do we encounter Christ? How do we gain this empirical knowledge that leads to belief? Saint John Chrysostom, in his homily on this Gospel passage, picks up on that other little detail I mentioned at the outset, the shut doors:
Therefore, brethren, if we also wish the Lord to come to us as He came to His apostles and disciples while the doors were shut, let us strive to close the doors – all our senses. (Let us) keep our mouths closed with a resolute good silence, because every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgement. (Let us) guard our eyes, that they might not gaze with passion or curiosity, but with chastity and reverence, because whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart. (Let us) restrain our ears from listening to corrupt and detestable words; (let us) not allow them to pay heed to anyone who spreads calumny and slander against the brethren; instead, we should curb them, lest we commit a twofold sin together with them by assimilating an evil passion and not preventing those who engage in injustice and falsehood; for even murder is as nothing in the eyes of calumniators, slanderers and those who rejoice at the misfortunes of others. (Let us) keep our hands pure and undefiled, stretching them out to God (in prayer) and for acts of justice and kindness, and not seizing the property of others or accepting bribes to conceal the truth. (Let us) guide our feet into the way of peace, to carry out the divine commandments of Christ; let them not be bold and hasty to run to bloodshed. As for our (senses) of smell and touch, (let us) turn them away from fleshly passions and pleasures.
Note the contrast to Barbara Ehrenreich’s idea that the only way to access God was through some sort of ecstatic rituals. Also, recall to mind Psalm 46:10 that says, Be still, and know that I am God. Or, in the Old Testament where the Prophet Elias on the mountain has this experience:
And he said, Thou shalt go forth tomorrow, and shalt stand before the Lord in the mount; behold, the Lord will pass by. And, behold, a great and strong wind rending the mountains, and crushing the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake: and after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire the voice of a gentle breeze.
And it was then the Lord spoke to the Prophet Elias.
Christ does not come in ecstatic rituals, but rather in the silencing of our noisy senses, in patient waiting, with the doors shut, and with the voice of a gentle breeze. He does not come in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, because He is Fire, which burneth the unworthy.
So, let us shut the doors of our senses, and wait daily for the coming of our Saviour. Let us reach out, probe, question, and touch Him, taking Him into our mouths in Holy Communion, so that we may know Him, and believe, and cry with Thomas: My Lord and my God!
3: New Oxford American Dictionary
5: Pentecostarion, p. 40 (Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Boston, 2014)
6: Prayer Book, p. 352 (Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Boston, 1987)
7: Isaiah 6:5-7 (KJV)
8: Prayer Book, p. 354 (Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Boston, 1987)
9: The Gospel Commentary, p. 162-163 (Russian Orthodox Church of the Nativity of Christ: Erie, PA, 2002) Hieromonk German Ciuba, translator.
10: The Psalter According to the Seventy, Psalm 46:10 (Holy Transfiguration Monastery: Boston, 2007)
11: Septuagint, III Kings 19:11-12, translated by Sir Lancelot C. L. Brenton, 1851.