This Sunday we complete the Octave of Easter. In the post-Conciliar calendar, it is creatively called the “Second Sunday of Easter” or, since John Paul II was greatly interested in the theme, “Divine Mercy Sunday”. However, historically we call the Easter Octave, “Low Sunday”, probably because it was celebrated with less pomp than Easter. It is called “Thomas Sunday”, because that Apostle is highlighted in the Gospel reading. It is also famously called “Quasimodo Sunday” for the first word of the opening chant, the Introit from 1 Peter 2:2-3: “Like (in the Vulgate Sicut modo) newborn babes (infantes), long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation; for you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” Quasimodo and Sicut modo are interchangeable. However, Quasimodo reflects a Latin translation of the Holy Scriptures that predated Jerome’s Vulgate. For centuries and centuries the Roman liturgy, the essence of which is repetition, tended to remain the same, out of a sense of reverence. Only slowly did it change. The fact that a version of the Latin Scriptures predating the Vulgate has stuck in the liturgical chants of the Mass is proof of this.
To continue with our historical context for this Sunday, most importantly, since ancient times this Sunday is called “Dominica in albis” or also “in albis depositis”… the Sunday of the “white robes having been taken off.” In the ancient Roman Church the newly baptized, no longer catechumens, were called infantes. They wore their white baptismal robes for week after Easter during which they received special instruction from the bishop at the Roman Station churches about the sacred mysteries and Christian life. On this Sunday they removed their white robes, which were deposited in the cathedral treasury as a perpetual witness to their vows. They were then “out of the nest” of the bishop, as it were, on their own to live their Catholic daily lives. St. Augustine of Hippo (+430), using the imagery of spring, compares the newly baptized to little birds trying to fly from the nest while he, the father bird, flapped around them and chirping noisily to encourage them (s. 376a).
So, today’s Mass begins, “Like newborn babes…” to exhort the newly baptized, to be sure, but also all of us who are baptized.
In sum, the Octave of Easter has many names and it is jam packed with history and significance.
Let us break the bread of the Sunday Gospel, too rich by far for us to see but a glimpse of some crumbs.
What is going on? John 20 begins with the Resurrection and Mary Magdalene, the Road to Emmaus and, finally, the Lord’s two appearances the Apostles, a week apart. The first is on the “evening of the first day” (v. 19), hence the evening of Easter Sunday. The second is “eight days later”, the Octave. Eight is that mysterious day beyond day seven, the Sabbath, the day of rest after Creation. The Eighth day already signifies completion and the time of summation, outside of time.
We are told that the Apostles were locked in their room “for fear of the Jews” (v. 19). The Apostles were Jews, too. This is a reference to the conflict between the people from the northern territory where Galilee is and the south, Judea. The Greek says they were afraid of the “Iudaioi”, Judeans. The Lord appeared suddenly in their midst and they were afraid in another way, as is clear from the Lord’s greeting, “Peace be with you”, which he repeated during this same first visit and then again a week later. When the Lord, the Eternal Word, said “Peace be with you”, He was both talking about Himself being present, but He also was transforming their lives through His invocation. This same greeting is used in Latin by successors of the Apostles, bishops, when they celebrate Mass. Whereas a simple priest says “Dominus vobiscum!” the bishop says, “Pax vobis!”
The appearance of the Lord was confusing even for those who were with Him uninterruptedly for several years. As Mary Magdalene and the disciples walking to Emmaus didn’t recognize the Lord until the Lord made a move (saying, “Mary”, or the “breaking the bread”), the Apostles rejoiced to see Him after He showed them His wounds from the Passion: “Then the disciples were glad.”
Christ showed them His hands and feet and side, to demonstrate that He had a real body and that it was also is His Body. He didn’t pick up some unwounded, perfect Body that He was now inhabiting. We are our bodies, as we are our rites. The fact that the wounds remained in His Body’s hands, feet and side provided continuity with His Body before and during His Passion. He isn’t a mere shade of the Lord. Nor has he exchanged Himself for an unwounded version. In this way Christ began to show them the traits of the risen Body, traits which we, too, will share in the Resurrection: clarity (reflecting God’s glory), impassibility (incapable of suffering), agility (ease and speed of movement), subtlety (unhindered by barriers).
What did the Lord do next? He said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” The word for what the Father did with the Son is from the verb, “apostéllo”. Apostles are “sent ones”. The verb the Lord used here to send is “pémpo”, a synonym. They become “sent ones” just as Christ Himself is the “Sent One”, sent by the Father. Christ, the Apostle of the Father, who became incarnate of the Virgin by the inbreathing of the Holy Spirit, who identified Himself with the Father so closely that His claims were of divinity, associated His own sent ones so closely to Himself that next He breathed the Holy Spirit on them also, and said, “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” They then had Christ’s own Power to forgive sins. This is consistent with what the Lord said elsewhere, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives any one whom I send receives me; and he who receives me receives him who sent me.” (John 13.20, and Luke 10:16, Matthew 10.40).
He gave them His own authority. Though the Spirit-breathed College of the Apostles, wielding Christ’s own authority, Christ, the Great Apostle provided continuity with His newly risen Mystical Person. The Body the Church would be inbreathed at Pentecost.
When the Church speaks authoritatively, her word isn’t just a shade or substitute teaching, loosing, binding. It is Christ who teaches. It is a real binding-loosing teaching.
This passage in John 20 is the foundational text for how we know that Christ instituted the Sacrament of Penance. It is a dogma of the Church to be believed De Fide, affirmed by the Council of Trent, that the Church received from Christ the power to remit post-Baptismal sins. Christ had promised this binding and loosing power “of the keys” to Peter at Caesarea Philippi, many moons before (Matthew 16). On Easter this came to fruition.
The loosing of sins is a real loosing, not a pretend loosing as the heretical Protestant reformers claimed, a covering over or an ignoring. It is an eradication and complete cleansing.
When was the last time you heard those words, in whatever language, “I absolve you from your sins…” uttered by the priest? Remember that the power to bind or loose sins depends on the knowledge the priestly Apostles have of those sins. Therefore, we must tell those sins so the absolver can absolve them. Hence, just as every sacrament has both form (the words) and matter (the sensible thing involved), so the Sacrament of Penance has the words of absolution in a precise form, for the Church has the authority to determine that form, and the matter in the telling of the sins.
We don’t know why Thomas wasn’t with the other ten Apostles in the room for that first appearance of the Lord. I like to imagine that it was his turn to get the “take out” for the rest of them.
Thomas, who had doubted, put his trust in the Lord at this point. In fact, he literally handed his trust to Him where the point of the lance had left its mark on the Lord’s glorious Risen Body, a wound from a Roman lance large enough to insert his hand. The Lord told Thomas to “thrust” (Greek bále) his hand “eis ten pleurán… into (His) side”. If we want to be picky, we might note that the Greek word “cheír”, insofar as our anatomy is concerned, can mean “hand”, but it can also mean “finger” or “hand and arm”, the later so much so that in some contexts additional words are added to denote “hand” as distinct from the arm (cf. Liddell-Scott-Jones, A Greek-English Lexicon aka LSJ – “χείρ , ἡ”). This is significant for depictions in art, as in the famous painting by Caravaggio, wherein Thomas puts his finger into Christ’s side and peers into it, which smacks of the spirituality of St. Bonaventure who wrote about how Thomas the Apostle looked through the Lord’s visible wounds and saw His invisible wound of love. It also affects depictions of the crucifixion of the Lord and of His risen Body, with the holes of the nails in the hands. Some maintain that Christ would have been crucified with nails through the wrists so that the ulna and radius bones would sustain His Body’s weight rather than tearing through the flesh of His hands.
Christ tells Thomas to explore with his finger (dáktylos) the spike holes of His “hands/wrists”, which would be more or less the size of a large finger. However, he tells Thomas to use his hand for the wound in His side. The Greek suggests to me that the Lord instructed Thomas to push, thrust His hand into the wound channel left by the Roman lance, which had gone so far as to lacerate the Lord’s Sacred Heart.
We don’t have in the Gospel account of this stunning moment, to which John was eyewitness, a precise statement by John that Thomas physically did it. All it says is that Thomas responded, “My Lord and my God!” Christ responded with a “beatitude” (v. 29): “Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Was Thomas so overwhelmed that He could not touch the Lord in that way? All He could utter was that amazing witness to belief in the divinity of Christ? The clearest and most exultant of any in the Gospels?
Christ refers to Thomas seeing Him, but He did not say, “because you have touched me”. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if the Risen Christ tells you to do something, you do it. Furthermore, John immediately concludes this chapter with something so definitive that it feels like the end of the whole work (vv. 30-31):
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.
John also did something similar to this, like a conclusion after a highpoint, when Christ’s side was pierced by the lance and blood and water came out: “He who saw it has borne witness—his testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth—that you also may believe” (19:35). In that case, John pointed to something that the Jews would have know: that there was a water-course under the Temple that carried blood of the quarter million lambs slain on Passover, out of the side of the Temple mount. Christ called His Body the Temple that would be rebuilt in three days (John 2:19-21). Hence, the His pierced Sacred Heart, the veil of which was split as the veil in the Temple was at Christ’s death (Matthew 25:51), would be the new Holy of Holies of the new risen Temple of His Body. Both of these turning-point interjections, in John 19 and 20, are connected with Christ’s wounded side.
There follows chapter 21 and the account of the reconciliation of Peter at the Sea of Galilee. We moderns count that as chapter 21. Remember, the Gospels were not written with chapters and verses and not even word breaks. Those were imposed centuries later. Yet, one has the sense that what happened between Christ and Thomas was so amazing that John penned something like a conclusion to his Gospel after Thomas’s cry of faith, arguably the climax of John’s account.
Given the various meanings of “hand” in Greek, and that word “thrust”, and the fact that the wound from the lance remained, therefore remained all the way to His Heart, perhaps Our Lord required Thomas not merely to touch His side but even to feel the breath, the ruach, in His torn lung. Did Thomas, while feeling the ruach on his wrist, touch with his hand the physical, risen, subtle, impassible, agile, blazing bright Heart of Jesus?
By the way, in art, statues and painting, the Apostles are usually depicted with the instruments of their martyrdom. St. Thomas is often depicted with a lance.
On this Sunday we emphasize the mercy of God and the institution of the Sacrament of Penance, perhaps the greatest encounter we have with incarnate Mercy, Holy Communion notwithstanding.
Christ told Thomas to do what He did before witnesses so that they too would understand about the traits of His risen Body and that it was truly His own. Knowing full well that we would one day read this, He inspired the disciple He most loved to write his Gospel account, an account that connects Thomas to the inspiration of the Spirit and the mercy of Christ’s Heart in a way that other Apostles didn’t experience on that first Easter evening appearance.
When we go to confession, like Thomas we enter into Mercy in order to be breathed upon by the Spirit and to feel the beating, living, healing, Heart of Love.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz