The Daily Offices

The Daily Offices from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, (Canada 1962), including daily Bible readings and occasional sermons from the Cathedral of the Annunication of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Ottawa

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Bishop Carl's Easter I homily

“Jesus stood in the midst, and saith unto them, ‘Peace be unto you’.” (John 20.19b)
All week long, in our daily celebrations of the Holy Eucharist, we have been reading of the various appearances of our Lord following His Resurrection. What an amazing time that must have been! His appearances are presented so graphically that it is frankly difficult not to imagine ourselves being there.

It seems to me that, in these recent years of the Christian faith, there have developed at least two ways of imagining ourselves as being present in Biblical episodes. The less happy of the two began perhaps with reasonable intentions, even if something that a good spiritual director would not encourage. We might call this the, “What if?” speculation mode. “What if Moses had run away in fear from the burning bush, or if he had given up after Pharaoh’s first rebukes?” “What if Elijah had not responded to God’s commission following his self-imposed exile in the wilderness?” “What if the Blessed Virgin Mary had said ‘No’?” “What if Jesus did not in fact rise from the dead?”

Among the reasons why a good spiritual director would encourage the faithful to avoid such musings is not just that they question, against how the missionary hymn states it, that “God is working his purpose out”; more perniciously, these questions are only a very small step away from outright doubt and denial. Topically, it is now almost 100 years since the first bishop in the Canterbury communion to deny publicly belief in the bodily Resurrection, Hensley Henson, was consecrated.

The other way of imagining ourselves being present in Biblical episodes is much more spiritually healthy: we wish to strengthen our faith, or as the “coaches” of the practice of mental prayer encourage, to learn from, and aid in, ridding ourselves of particular vices, seeking with God’s presence and help in us, to grow in virtue and sanctification. Such an exercise of positive, faithful visualization is devoid of doubt and, therefore, denial.

And yet, when we come to our Lord’s Resurrection appearances, to visualize ourselves present will place us among those who, at the time, doubted. The very reading that we heard from John’s Gospel this morning is sandwiched by two such episodes. The first, immediately preceding our reading today, was that of Mary Magdalene being the first witness in the garden – which was our reading on Thursday past. And what an utterly realistic scene: the emotionally crushed Mary, standing at the sepulchre, weeping, not just because her Lord had been put to death, but also as His Body was now missing. How confounding the words of the two angels must have been, “Woman, why weepest thou”? And then, our Lord appears to Mary, saying the same words, and a few more – and she thinks he is the gardener!

Now we must be fair here to Mary – by visualizing ourselves to be immersed in the episode. The idea of someone reviving after the horrors of a Roman scourging, often itself resulting in death, and then the even more gruesome and utterly final death by crucifixion, the idea of someone reviving from that was simply far beyond any possibility whatever.

Perhaps Mary had been with Jesus at the raising of Lazarus and that of the widow of Nain’s son – but they were both what we might call resuscitation. Those restored to life were as they had been just before; Lazarus was still wound up in his burial bands.

In our Lord’s case, something different had occurred; and, it is clear from Mary’s reaction that it was not a simple resuscitation. His Resurrected Body was sufficiently different in some respects that one of His closest followers did not recognize Him. We might think here of St Paul’s splendid bit from his first letter to the Church in Corinth which we read at Christian burials, “And that which thou sowest, thou sowest not that body that shall be, but bare grain, it may chance of wheat, or of some other grain: but God giveth it a body, as it hath pleased him, and to every seed a body of its own. So also is the resurrection of the dead.” Just think of the examples that surround us, not least at this time of year. The plants that grow are almost unimaginably different than what we might assume from the seeds that we plant. “God giveth it a body ... so also is the resurrection of the dead.”

Now perhaps we might be labelling Mary’s reaction, as doubt, somewhat unfairly; however, when we come to the episode that follows immediately after today’s reading, there is no question: “doubting Thomas”, which was our reading at yesterday’s celebration of the Holy Eucharist. In today’s reading we heard that Jesus showed the other disciples His hands and His side – which is to say, while there were other profound changes in His Resurrected appearance, the marks of His Crucifixion – how man put God to death – remained. And we all know so well how that Thomas’ emphatic disbelief, “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” – we might think of Carravaggio’s famous painting showing Thomas’ finger right up to the first joint in Jesus’ side – how his doubt was changed into a beauteously simple creed, “My Lord and my God”.

Let us return now to today’s reading. “The same day at evening” is how it begins. The “same day” being the day in which Mary Magdalene saw Him in the sepulchre garden. He appears to the disciples, minus Thomas, and His first words were, “Peace be unto you”. We then read that He showed them His hands and His side, before saying again, “Peace be unto you”. John doesn’t say why He might have showed them His hands and side; however, Luke’s account of the same episode is happily more elaborate. Luke alone, after relating Mary’s encounter, but slightly differently with other women present at the sepulchre, provides the episode of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus meeting the Lord, again on the same day – Easter Day, and who, like Mary in the garden, did not recognize His Resurrected Form. This was our Second Lesson at Mattins this morning. Upon having their eyes opened, they rushed back to Jerusalem, and were with the others when Jesus appeared unto them, and as Luke records, “And as they thus spake, Jesus himself stood in the midst of them, and saith unto them, ‘Peace be unto you’.” This opening is the same as John; but then Luke gives us more information as to our Lord’s showing His hands and His side, “But they were terrified and affrighted, and supposed that they had seen a spirit. And he said unto them, ‘Why are ye troubled? and why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.’ And when he had thus spoken, he shewed them his hands and his feet. And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, ‘Have ye here any meat?’”

Luke and John then provide different accounts of our Lord’s commission to the Apostles. As our reading today is from John, let us return to that, and specifically to our Lord’s words, “Peace be unto you” which John states, as we have mentioned, that our Lord said twice to the disciples, immediately upon His appearance, and immediately after showing them His hands and His side. Then eight days later, when He appeared to them again, this time with the doubting Thomas present, His first words? “Peace be unto you.”

We might observe that these words of our Lord seem clearly intended to provide comfort and assurance to the downcast, doubting, terrified and perhaps confused disciples. Surely it is also worth noting, against how subsequent generations meet our Lord, the timing of the words. They were the first words uttered by our Lord to His Apostles after He had assumed His Resurrected form – a form as we see from the episodes recorded in the Gospels that was somehow different than His pre-Resurrection body. They are also the words that the priest utters following the Prayer of Consecration, “The Peace of the Lord be always with you”, when we see our Lord “hidden ‘neath forms of bread and wine”, as the hymn “O food of men wayfaring” states it, a different form than His actual Body.

How important then are those well-known words in that particular place in the Eucharist. They are more than just words of comfort that some churches exchange as a greeting among the faithful – but what a pity that they, in that exchange among the faithful, have been moved from their original place at the Offertory, where they did not disrupt the key moment in the entire service. Placing them just after the consecration of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord, to me at least, is a dreadful disruption of how our minds have been uplifted from our participation in the One, Perpetual Eucharistic Sacrifice of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, of seeing Him in the Sacrament of the Altar, of uttering, before the now precious Body and Blood, those same words as did St Thomas, “My Lord and my God”.

“Peace be unto you.” “The Peace of the Lord be always with you.” Words from our Resurrected Lord intended not just to comfort, but to assure His disciples and us that He is truly risen, that under the different form of Bread and Wine He is truly present, that He is with us as He promised He would always be.