Some thoughts for the Easter Season – 12 Apr to 31 May
Easter Sunday seems to be fading into the past already and, in so far as the corona virus management constraints allow, daily life has returned to ‘normal’. But the Easter Season is much more than Easter Sunday in the cycle of our church pattern. At 50 days it is the longest in the liturgical calendar, 10 more than Lent and nearly twice that of Epiphany. So what are we to do during this time and how do we do it whilst maintaining the “social distancing”? Between Ascension and Pentecost it is intended that we engage with Thy Kingdom Come – a time of collective engagement and prayer – reaching out to God on behalf of the world and specifically for folk within our community and over the next few weeks I suspect there will be emails, video discussions and planning for the details of this. But what do we do by way of personal preparation? Do we need personal preparation? Perhaps this is a period of stillness in anticipation for the signs and wonder of Pentecost? For me it has begun with some reflections on what has passed in the calendar in the light of daily developments of covid-19 looking for the hope that my faith keeps reminding me I am to be living in. And, as often does in reflection, curiosities come to the foreground of the mind.
As Lent progressed so did the exponential rise in infections and, sadly, deaths of the pandemic and much of my thoughts were focused on how to combat the natural fear that this invoked, perhaps increased by the strict control measures we‘ve had to submit to. But then I was reminded that we are a people of faith not fear. 1 John 4:18 states “Perfect love casts out fear” built on Johns three statements (vs 12, 17 & 18) that we have been “perfected in love”. It’s not bravado, intellectual study, physical strength, mindfulness or life practices but the sanctifying work of God’s love in us which enables, through His empowering presence, for all fear to be cast out. Compliance with the control measures then becomes an act of love not a response from fear. For us the cessation of meeting in the church building, of not meeting friends for a coffee and chat, of separation from family during this time is not out of self-interest but out of compassion and love for others. Social distancing becomes an act of faith not fear.
Looking back into Lent I have also been drawn to the crown of thorns forced onto the head of Christ. One of the central symbols of Lent it reminds us of sacrifice and self-denial. It is a symbol of the cost Jesus paid. The term “corona” in “coronavirus” is a word meaning “crown.” It is because the virus, under extreme magnification, actually looks like a thorny crown; therefore, it is—quite literally—the thorny crown virus. The coronavirus reminds me that as Christians we always—even when there is no virus in our midst—embody the sufferings of the world.
And now into the Easter season and I’ve been held reflecting on the Gospel for the Sunday after Easter day itself. When we read of Thomas (John 20:19-31). “Doubting Thomas” we’ve called him and all his spiritual progeny down through the ages because Thomas lived by the adage “seeing is believing” and because he looked for certain tangible signs to shore up his belief. And once again I’ve found myself challenged by this characterisation of Thomas. Thomas never doubts the Risen Lord. Thomas doubts the word and the witness of the Lord’s community. When the Risen One turns up a week later, Thomas is filled with faith. “My Lord and my God,” he confesses. Thomas simply did not find his friends a credible community.
What do we know about Thomas? Only the Gospel of John includes a few snapshots of Thomas. The first 11th chapter when Jesus has been summoned to go to Lazarus. Some of the disciples think travel is really dangerous under the circumstances: the Jewish leaders were at that very moment seeking an opportunity to put Jesus to death but it is Thomas who realizes Jesus has made up his mind to go to his friends. It is Thomas who says to the others: “Let us go to die with him!” Fearless Thomas we might call him; loyal Thomas; loving Thomas. Thomas is willing to stand by Jesus, even to the point of death. He urges the others to set their faces, too, to Jerusalem.
Then, at the last supper, Jesus is preparing his disciples for his Passover through suffering to glory – but his language is one of riddles. It is almost possible to see Thomas, brows furrowed, trying to follow the implications of everything Jesus is saying, and finally blurting out: “We don’t know where you are going. How can we possibly know the way!” The others must have been just as perplexed, but perhaps they were afraid to show their ignorance, perhaps even afraid to call attention to themselves. Thomas is not cowed into silence. He didn’t understand and he wanted to! He can’t follow Jesus unless he knows where and how. It’s as simple as that. Straightforward Thomas we could call him, or simple Thomas, or how about refreshingly direct and realistic Thomas. Even, Thomas – the follower of the Way.
Then we get to his centre stage time – the story of the appearance of the Risen One in the midst of the disciples. The Lord arrives when Thomas is out. The disciples are gathered in fear behind locked doors. Jesus appears and fills them with joy. He confers on them a mission and gives them his own Spirit to continue his saving work. Jesus makes his presence and power known to his closest friends and offers them the spirit-gift for the sake of the kingdom.
But Thomas isn’t present. He’d just stepped out briefly. Maybe he was doing a grocery run. Perhaps none of the others would put a toe out the door – not so, Thomas. He ventures forth. He is either fearless or just plain foolhardy – or maybe both, which may be what we also need to be. Thomas returns and they tell him they have seen the Lord –- but for Thomas, something doesn’t ring true. If they have seen the Lord why are they still locked up tight in that room? If they are filled with such joy, why couldn’t he read it on their faces? If they have been empowered by the Spirit of God what are they waiting for? For Thomas to return? Surely not, or they would have been so breathless and eager that he would have seen the transformation in their eyes. So Thomas says to them, in so many words, “I don’t find you believable.” Thomas – simple, loyal, loving, straightforward, down to earth, direct -– who didn’t understand but wanted to, who longed to follow Jesus but who needed to know the way — Thomas didn’t doubt the Lord; he doubted the word of his friends! Thomas found it highly unlikely that the Lord was Risen because he was surrounded by a group of witnesses whom he simply did not find credible. There is a saying in the Eastern Church: “If you want to know if Jesus is really Risen, look around you at the faces at the Easter vigil.” Thomas could not read the presence of the Risen One on the faces of his friends…and I’m left with the following questions of myself:
What would he read on my face?
This question has everything to do with my journey through this Easter season. As the corona curves we see each day at the daily briefings flatten out and then turn downwards, as we tentatively seek ways to ease the social restrictions, as we travel towards the day of Pentecost praying “Thy Kingdom Come” we need to look like a credible community, a community that has seen the Lord and been transformed. And that’s surely something to keep us occupied, diligent and inspired though these days ahead.