In Old Testament the Law of Moses prescribed that the Day of the Lord would be Saturday, the last day of the week, the day the Book of Generis says God rested after creating the world. In the New Testament we symbolically take a step forward and make Sunday, the first day of the week, the Day of the Lord. All the major events happened on a Sunday. Jesus seems to have planned it that way. He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday; the two events related by John in today’s Gospel take place on two different Sundays. When we gather as a community every Sunday, it is the same three events related in today’s readings which we celebrate, first the resurrection, secondly the gift of the Holy Spirit, and thirdly the sending into mission to the world. Monday is the new first day of the week when we begin our mission.
In the first part of today’s Gospel we are still on Easter Sunday. As we read last week, Mary Magdalene had discovered the tomb empty and hurried to Peter and John to tell them someone has taken Jesus. Peter and the other disciple ran to the tomb. John recognized what he saw as signs that Jesus had risen as he had promised: “He saw and believed” said the Evangelist. This coming to faith does not seem however to immediately take away the fear of the authorities. When Jesus came to them on that same evening, they were hiding behind locked doors. In the midst of this fearful gathering he offered peace: “Peace be with you” he said. “The disciples, adds John, were filled with joy when they saw the Lord” (Jn 20:20).
What the Gospel of John condenses into one day, the other Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles spread over a fifty day period. Accustomed as we are to scientific accuracy and investigative reporting, we want to know how it really happened. The authors of the New Testament didn’t even think of that, that is a modern concept. They wanted to relate a spiritual message, period. Their rendering of the sequence of events is more affected by symbolism than time line accuracy. In other words, the number had more to do with symbolism than real facts. Forty days is the traditional period of preparation. The Hebrew are said to have spent forty years in the desert before entering the Promised Land. Jesus is said to have spent forty days in the desert before beginning his ministry. Now he is said to prepare his disciples for his final return to the Father for forty days until his Ascension.
Once we can put aside the secondary issue of the sequence of events, we can discover the important lessons John has in store for us. First, there have probably been times in our life where we felt like the disciples pretty overwhelmed by the circumstances. How often would we have we like to hide in a safe upper room as they did? Where can one go when the center of one’s life has disappeared? Where can we go when
things crumble under one’s feet? They had put all their hopes in Jesus as the promised Messiah, but he had been betrayed and killed. Yes, Mary Magdalene had come back saying she had spoken to him in the garden, but was it the grief that made her imagine that? John had seen the empty tomb and the folded shroud and said he believed, but that was no proof. Did he just believe what he wanted to believe? As the disciples of an executed trouble maker, it was more logical to fear for their lives and hide in a safe place.
Jesus’ resurrection was not in the realm of human logic, but like the creation of the universe, like the Eucharist it is within God’s power. Once we accept that Christ is risen and abides in our midst, all fears can be dispelled. Once Jesus came to see them and the disciples accepted the fact he was truly alive and among them, eating before them, they were fearless. Once he fortified them with the Holy Spirit they felt the courage to face an hostile world and proclaim the Risen Lord although it sounded crazy. Saint Paul describes it as “scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.”
The one disciple that was not with them on Easter night to witness the Risen Jesus was within human logic to doubt and made a lot of sense when he asked to see and touch. That is not faith however. That is proof and when we have proof we don’t need faith. Although Jesus granted Thomas’ request to see and touch, he pointed out that is not what he expects of future disciples, instead “Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.”
The story does not end with Thomas. Every Sunday we gather to celebrate together, our faith can be challenged by the same desire to see and touch. We may not want to put our finger in his side, but we want him take care of our needs so that we may believe. Jesus instead asks us to trust him fully. As in any true relationship, one needs to first trust before one can feel the love. We first need to make the step in the dark trusting he will be there to catch us. The way we will feel his presence is by living by the words he gave us. As Jesus did for his disciples then, he does for his disciples today. He assures us of the reality of his presence and gives us his peace. The “peace be with you” he repeats three times in today’s Gospel was for all time. Let us accept his peace and let the fear dissipate. He has given us his Spirit and sent us to proclaim and live his mission of peace. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” The way we will sow that peace around us is mainly he says by forgiving: ”Whose sins you forgive are forgiven them, and whose sins you retain are retained.”
We all have the power to forgive sins and spread peace and joy around us. If there is a proof to be had this is the one. We do not find confirmation of our faith in the Risen Christ by touching his flesh but by seeing his teachings in action. The proof of the presence of Christ among us is not so much the magnificent cathedrals as the lives of those who are living examples of his teachings.