Rarely has any biblical reading felt so apt for the day.
The disciples were, of course, locked in a room, away from the world. Conceivably it was the same upper room where they celebrated the festival just a couple of days earlier, a dining room. The doors are locked, through an entirely justified fear. I am here, in a dining room, with the doors locked out of another entirely justified fear.
When our Archbishop was getting excited about a return to early Christianity’s house churches, perhaps this was what he had in mind.
I love this passage for many reasons, but perhaps first among them is the way that Jesus entirely ignores the fact that the doors are locked. First, he is suddenly there, inside the room, without knocking and without a key. And then he says, “As my Father hath sent me, even so send I you”. He arrives despite a locked door and he sends them out to do their work despite a locked door.
This, I think, speaks to our current situation. The doors may be locked, we are afraid and it seems like life has gone, but God’s ability to act is not constrained by our locked doors. God’s activity is no less because the churches are closed and because we are locked up in our homes. God’s Holy Spirit is still active in us and throughout the world. These are extraordinary times and extraordinary situations, but God’s grace is also extraordinary. Much as we may miss normality, God is not and will not be apart from us.
With all that said, there is another reason why this Gospel passage is so relevant today. It is the physicality of the Resurrection that is so very important. After the uncertainty and fear of Easter morning, Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side, and then were they glad. It took that immediate sight of him and his wounds to gladden their hearts. And S. Thomas drives this home by his reluctance to believe: ‘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.’
Poor S. Thomas is often criticised for this, but, after all, he was asking no more than the other disciples received. “Reach hither thy hand,” our Lord says, “and thrust it into my side.”
Easter is full of physicality. Mary embraces our Lord in the Garden. The disciples and Thomas touch his wounds. He breathes on them. He eats breakfast with them. He proves again and again that he is the same physical person, no disembodied spirit or ghost. The hand thrust into our Lord’s side is a proof of life enduring all the bitterness and agony of death. The belief in a physical Resurrection, then, is crucial to the Christian faith and, what’s more, it is psychologically of enormous value.
Like Thomas, like Mary Magdalene, we desire touch, embrace. It has been weeks since I embraced anyone or even shook hands – I miss it. And physical separation is painful. It is unnatural for us as social human beings, and it is even more unnatural for us as Christians. “The Church isn’t a building,” people have been saying over and over again, “it’s the people.” I understand why this has become something of a mantra in recent times, but the Church is not just a group of people. It is the creation of God, embracing all the faithful living and departed. It is not just a community on earth, but our community in Heaven and among the souls journeying to God. For Catholic Christians, the Church’s identity is found in our visible, physical worshipping life. That worship does not merely fulfil a function of building up a community or informing people about the truths of the Christian faith: our worship serves above all to glorify God, as we join here on earth the unending worship of Heaven.
And we are separated from this. This is a deep grief – and it ought to be. For all that live-streaming is well and good, it is not a sufficient substitute. Our faith is not just ideas, but a living, physical heritage, bound up with music and liturgy, with places and communities made holy by God’s Holy Spirit. This is abnormal and painful. The celebration of the mass with a priest here in a dining room and the congregation scattered around the world is no substitute. Like S. Thomas, we need touch.
But we are here. And another part of our Christian faith is that we believe in God’s power of redemption, that out of the Good Fridays of our sorrows may come glorious Easters. So in the midst of the pain, grief and boredom of this current season, perhaps we as the Church can discover cause for joy.
I wonder if this manner of engaging with the mass might help us find a new level of understanding for its importance. The great Catholic truth is that each mass is a participation in the one sacrifice, and we are thereby united not only with those physically around us now, but also with those across the world and across the centuries. As we are removed from others’ presence at our side, perhaps we can remember better those innumerable saints who are with us now, by the grace of the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, I have seen a great many people describe the mass as as the “family meal of the Church”. While this is true, it is not the whole truth. (This is, of course, why Fr Andrew and I have gone to great effort to make this room a seemly chapel for the celebration of the mass, rather than doing it at our breakfast tables.) No, as well as a meal, the mass is a sacrifice. It is not only the means by which people are able to make their Holy Communion: it is the participation in the one sacrifice offered on Calvary. When we participate in the mass, we are joining with Christ, our great High Priest, as our redemption is accomplished, as sin and death are forever conquered. “In the Eucharist the Church is as it were at the foot of the cross with Mary, united with the offering and intercession of Christ.” (CCC §1370)
So, while we cannot celebrate the mass as we normally can, while we cannot share in the holy banquet in the normal manner, let us ponder anew the greatness of the sacrifice of Christ for us. Let us consider the greatness of God’s mercy that allows us to share in that offering made once for all. The fruits of the mass are never just for those present, but are for the whole of creation. So let us rejoice in our worship together, because, in this celebration, whether we are near or far we are united with the Easter joy of the whole Church and with the eternal offering of our Lord, by which all may be saved.