The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE RESURRECTION
AND THOMAS SUNDAY
5th May 2011
Our Lord Jesus Christ arose from the dead, in other words he arose after he put to death everything that concerns the human nature. As we say in the Church he “emptied himself” he self-denied himself of all things and submitted himself to the will of the Father until death on the Cross to destroy the power of death. He willingly accepted from his subjects “the dishonour, the insults, the accusations and curses, the jeering, the scourging, the spittings, the buffetings, the mocking, the purple robe, the reed, the crown of thorns, the sponge, the vinegar, the nails, the spear and above all the Cross and death, the burial, and the descent into Hades.
The multitude of the passions, which were the result of sin, had entered into human nature, because man had fallen from the Grace of God and was in a real Hades, in a hell. Man was tainted with the wounds of sin without signs of healing. Everything was a wound. From that darkness we performed all the terrible passions upon Christ, and he, who was without sin, accepted them in his body and became tainted with the bruise. He accepted the painful and bitter consequences of man’s sins and he transformed them into love and obedience to God, in other words to divine life and Resurrection, immortality and eternity. That is why, that while he was suffering he was at the same time all powerful as the inseparable of the Father who crushed the ungodly powers of darkness as easily as one would smash a jug made of pottery.
As Christ was suffering he was crushing the very nature of death. Hades did not have the power to hold him. He thought that it could hold Christ captive as it did all men, but he was deceived. He was blinded by his own wickedness; he thought he could capture one more man, but he lost everyone. Everyone held by Hades was set free by the sinless one, who even in Hades, did not stop even for a moment to be with his Father in heaven. St. John Chrysostom in his Paschal Sermon says: “Let no one fear death, for the Saviour’s death has set us free. He who was held by death, eradicated death. He plundered Hades when He descended into Hades. He embittered it, when it tasted of His flesh, and this being foretold by Isaiah when he cried: Hades said it was embittered, when it encountered Thee below. Embittered, for it was abolished. Embittered, for it was ridiculed. Embittered, for it was put to death. Embittered, for it was dethroned. Embittered, for it was made captive. It received a body and by chance came face to face with God. It received earth and encountered heaven. It received that which it could see, and was overthrown by Him whom he could not see. Where, O death, is your sting? Where, O Hades is your victory? Christ is risen, and thou art cast down. Christ is risen, and the demons have fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life is liberated. Christ is risen, and no one remains dead in a tomb. For Christ having risen from the dead, has become the first-fruits of those that have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and power, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Because Christ accepted the sufferings of men, he transformed them into holy and venerable passions, an offering of love to the will of the Father for the salvation of man and from these came forth the most select and saving fruits: The Resurrection from the dead, the plundering of Hades and the resurrection of all those who followed Christ and brought to ruin the kingdom of Hades, the honour, the glory, the veneration of the firstborn from the dead by all the angels. In other words Christ became the first to rise to the new kingdom of the Resurrection, because he passed through death, and all who accept his life-giving death will follow him in the resurrection. The message he has given us is that the life of the resurrection comes through the Cross; the perfect death of the carnal desires which in a mysterious way become life-giving.
St. Athanasius the Great says that “Christ with his Resurrection, made the whole life of men one continuous feast, because he transported our human society to heaven.” We are destined for heaven. Our society or commonwealth isn’t some earthly kingdom, but the Kingdom of heaven, the divine life, a communion and relationship with God who is the source of the incorrupt and immortal life. From the beginning we chose to leave this divine life and consigned ourselves to a prison, to death and to the darkness of Hades.
But Christ, with his Resurrection has set as free and has transported us to our true homeland. We did a Pascha, a Passover, in other words we crossed over from death to life and from earth to heaven. This crossing over we owe to Christ; he is our Pascha, he is our crossing over, despite the fact that this crossing over was painful and shameful. He granted us the possibility to become partakers of the life of grace and communion with God and our fellow brothers, because he granted us the treasure of his sacrifice on the Cross: his Body and Blood which are the source of all that is good. By suffering the same crucifixion of putting to death the sinful passions in our own bodies, we become communicants of his Passions. We are crucified and resurrected with our Saviour and we enjoy even now in this life and not in some unknown future, the transportation of our life from earth to heaven and then await for its completion when the Lord will come again on earth. The greatest and continuous feast in our lives is to be in Christ; to live together with Christ. This is Paradise, immortality, eternity; this is mystical Pascha.
After his Resurrection Christ remained on earth for forty days with the purpose of giving this mystery to the Church. The disciples take note of this teaching of his Body and will then preach it to all the known world. Whoever believes in the joy of the Resurrection message, they will through another mystery, the mystery of Holy Baptism, be grafted to the crucified, buried and risen Body of Christ, to the Church where Christ will remain the head for always and the faithful from all ages will, through the Holy Spirit, comprise the body. Thus the mystery of the Cross, death and Resurrection will be passed on to all ages through the members of the Church and it will be the same body that suffered under Pontius Pilate, that was nailed upon the Cross, that was buried by Joseph and Nicodemus and arose according to the Scriptures.
During the Forty days Christ appeared and talked many times with the Apostles. The Gospels tell us of some of these occasions although there must have been many other occasions that we are not told about. I want us to look at a couple of these appearances because they tell us something very important about the type of body Jesus had after the resurrection which we will also have after the General Resurrection after the Second Coming.
If you remember previous talks, we have mentioned many times that before Adam fell from grace his body was immortal so it had to be different from the bodies we now have which are mortal and decay. An immortal body must therefore have different attributes and we see this in Christ’s resurrected and immortal body. The first evidence that this resurrected human body is different can be deduced from the evidence found in the tomb itself.
Most of us have see the various films on the life of Jesus and much of what people understand has been influenced by these films. Many people believe that they are true interpretations of the events and that the films are a word for word account of the Gospels. What people don’t realize it that films like “Jesus of Nazareth” are interpretations of the script writers and the Directors who not only do not read the Gospels with spiritual understanding, but try to make everything more logical by adding storylines which according to their way of thinking helps to add drama and a sense of reality. For us Orthodox these films are very damaging because they give a very wrong teaching, and if we don’t know the true interpretations then these images are embedded into our memories and we assume that they must be true. In between the busy schedule for Holy Week I caught a few minutes of these films and there were times that I laughed at the ridiculous interpretations and at others I wanted to cry in desperation at how blind people are to the Gospel accounts of the Resurrection. In one film Peter is shown coming out of the tomb waving some white rags as though the rags were prove that Christ had risen from the dead. In all truth the burial clothes with which Christ was wrapped were proof that he had risen, but western spirituality has missed the point of why they were proof.
When we read the Gospel accounts we must be careful to read between the lines to understand what the Evangelists are actually telling us in an obscure way. St. John’s account of the Resurrection is of special interest and it is he who tells us about the burial clothes. In his account of the Resurrection he mentions that Mary Magdalene came by herself to the sepulchre while it was still dark and saw the stone rolled away, but didn’t enter inside. She run back and told Peter and John who accompanied her back to the tomb. John describes how Peter entered the tomb and saw the linen clothes lie and the napkin that was about his head not lying with the linen clothes, but wrapped together in a place by itself. Then John himself enters the tomb and he saw and believed. But what did John see that made him believe that Jesus was resurrected? By seeing an empty tomb is not proof of the Resurrection for as he himself says immediately after “For as yet they knew not the scripture, that he must rise again from the dead.” (John 20: 9) An empty tomb could also be interpreted that Christ body was removed by someone. So what did he see, what did he notice that was so extraordinary and so convincing that he mentions that when he saw he believed that Christ arose from the dead? Peter who entered first doesn’t seem to notice, because up to that moment John was speaking in the plural but now he suddenly changes from the plural and states in the singular case that he saw and believed. Only his eyes noticed something totally extraordinary and illogical which was proof enough for him to believe that Christ was Risen.
What John saw made him the first to believe in the resurrection. It is believed that what he saw was that the linen clothes were still on the burial stone in exactly the same way they were when they were wrapped around Jesus’ body together the sweet-spices used for the burial. In other words Jesus didn’t get up and remove his burial clothes, but passed through them leaving them behind exactly in the same shape as they were on the stone slab. The cloth which covered his head was a separate piece and that could have fallen from his face when he stood up and which he carefully folded and placed in a separate place from the other burial clothes although I will mention more in this in a moment. Thus the film which has Peter waving the rags in the air is far from the Orthodox understanding which explains why John believed when he saw the burial clothes.
The evidence of the intact and not unwrapped grave clothes reveal that Jesus' body was not stolen by His friends or enemies either. If someone, either friend of foe, had wanted to steal the body away, they would have been in a great rush and would have taken him as he was with the burial clothes; they certainly would not have gone to all the trouble to first unwrap the burial clothes, take the body out and then rewrap the burial clothes with the sweet spices in exactly the same way they were had the body still been inside. But why was the napkin wrapped together in a separate place by itself? Firstly, we need to understand that this was not a table napkin. In Greek the word is soudarion which was a cloth large enough to be wrapped around the head and not just placed on top. Secondly, it was not folded neatly as the English translation suggest but rolled together as it was when it was wrapped around Jesus’ head. The question is why was it found in a separate place and not with the rest of the burial clothes?
Some preacher on the internet has been spreading the story that it has to do with Jewish table manners and that when a master had finished his meal he would throw the napkin onto the table as a sign for the servant to clear the table, but if he folded the napkin then that meant that he would be returning to the table so the servant was not to clear the table. The folded napkin therefore is a message that Jesus will be coming back. A nice story, but the preacher of this story has not studied his Jewish history very well. Back in the days of Jesus, the Jews, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans did not sit on upright chairs around the dining table with their legs underneath the table to dine as we do today. They reclined on couches or cushions around a low table to dine. They would usually recline on one side while eating with one hand. There were no forks, no spoons and no knives on the table and certainly there were no table napkins.
Of course there must be a logical reason why the head cloth was in a separate place but no-one seems to know why. I have a theory which is plausible but keep in mind that it is just a theory. Jesus passed through all the burial clothes and left them as they were with the myrrh and aloes still wrapped inside. We are told that the weight of the various spices used for the embalming were one hundred pounds. These would have made a great bulk and even without the body inside the burial clothes, the mass of the spices would have given the impression to someone looking into the sepulcher that the body was still inside. This impression or illusion would have seemed more real if the head clothes were also in their original place. It is therefore possible that Jesus moved the head clothes to reveal that the other burial clothes were empty of a body. Like I said it is only a theory: what is undeniably the truth is that the burial clothes declared that Christ had truly risen from the dead, but they also tell us that Christ’s Resurrected body has undergone a transformation and could go through solid matter. This we see in other accounts of the Resurrection story.
Matthew tells us that as it began to dawn, in other words while it was still fairly dark, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary, meaning Mary the Mother of God came to the sepulchre and suddenly there was a great earthquake because an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and rolled back the stone from the entrance to the tomb. This he did, not as some imagine in order to let Jesus out, but to reveal that Jesus was not there. Now if the stone was rolled away to reveal that Jesus’ body was no longer in the tomb, where did it go? This is our first encounter with a resurrected immortal body and how it differs from our mortal bodies. Although it is still a material body, in other words it is not a ghost, it can actually pass through other solid matter. If the Body was no longer in the tomb then we can only assume that it passed through the solid stone walls of the sepulchre and was already outside of the tomb before the women witnessed the angel roll the stone away.
Thus already from the tomb we see that the Resurrected Jesus still has the same human body, but in a new and glorious form. It is still flesh and blood but can pass through other solid matter. Matthew tells us that as the two Maries run to tell the Apostles the angel’s message, they were met by Jesus and they held him by the feet and worshipped him. They did not see a spirit but a real tangible person. Christ appeared many times to the Apostles, sometimes to one or two and at other times to all the Apostles together. He appeared to Peter separately and to Luke and Cleopas whilst they were on their way to Emmaus. He spoke with them explaining the scriptures concerning himself to them for hours yet they didn’t recognise him. Only after the blessing and braking of bread were their eyes opened to see who their walking companion was and then he vanished from their sight. So another attribute of the Resurrected body is that it can appear in another form probably with different characteristics and can appear and disappear at will: Something that we would associate with science fiction films.
While still staying on the subject of Christ’s Resurrected body I want to look at last Sunday’s Gospel reading. Last Sunday, the first Sunday after Easter is known as Thomas Sunday or the “Touching of Thomas” It is also known as the “The Incredulity of Thomas” or more plainly Thomas’ disbelief. Let’s first hear the Gospel reading and then see if Thomas is truly worthy of his title “Doubting Thomas”.
“The same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the LORD. Then said Jesus to them again, Peace be unto you: as my Father hath sent me, even so send I you. And when he had said this, he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost: Whose soever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whose soever sins ye retain, they are retained. But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came. The other disciples therefore said unto him, We have seen the LORD. But he said unto them, 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. And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you. Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing. And Thomas answered and said unto him, My LORD and my God. Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed. And many other signs truly did Jesus in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book: But these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name.” (John 20: 19-31)
When we think of Thomas we always tend to think of Doubting Thomas because he didn’t believe the other apostles confession that they had see the Lord, but was he so very different from the other Apostles? They had heard from the women disciples and others that they had seen the Lord yet they also didn’t believe until they saw him with their own eyes. St Mark tells us that Christ “appeared unto the eleven as they sat at meat, and upbraided them with their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they believed not them which had seen him after he was risen.” (Mark 16: 14)
The Thomas account presents to us the significance of believing only after having seen the living Christ, in other words after having proof, and believing without having seen him. Let’s then examine the Thomas incident a little closer. The reading begins on the evening of Easter Sunday:
“Then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews, came Jesus and stood in the midst, and saith unto them, Peace be unto you. He then showed them his hands and his side.” Here again we have the attribute of the Resurrected body appearing where it wills: doors and walls do not present themselves as obstacles. Christ shows them his wounds to show them that he still has the same body that suffered the crucifixion and death. St Luke narrates to us the same event and tells us that Christ showed them his hands and feet because they thought they had seen a ghost and even after seeing the wounds they still found it difficult to believe so Christ asked to be given something to eat to show them that he was still flesh and blood because spirits do not eat. All the disciples had a hard time believing not only what they heard but even what they saw so why should we expect Thomas, who was not present, to be any different.
When the disciples told him that they had seen the Lord, he responded just like they would have responded and said: “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.” Here Thomas doesn’t completely dismiss the disciples’ confession, he doesn’t say that they imagined it, but refuses to believe that Jesus is risen, unless he sees him with his own eyes. The condition imposed by Thomas is clear and absolute: personal verification by sight, direct access by eye contact and nothing less. But even seeing is not enough proof for Thomas: he also wants to verify what he sees by touching Jesus at the very marks of his crucifixion: “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.” Thomas’ response is very human and as an apostle who was with Jesus for three years I would think that he felt he was entitled to see Jesus just as the other apostles saw him; why should he be singled out to be denied this new experience? Does he not also have the rightful claim to be granted a direct sight of the risen Christ as it happened with the other disciples or were the others so much more worthy than himself?
Thomas’ demands have characterized him as being a total sceptic, a person of little faith having a crude unbelief. Yet he demands nothing more than the proof Christ gave to the other Apostles. They saw the Risen Lord whom they at first thought was a spirit and were then invited to touch his hands and feet at the very marks of his crucifixion. It could also very well be that Thomas was not so much rejecting the evidence of the other apostles as he was eager to make sure that what they have seen was not a ghost.
If he is to be accused of anything it is that he should not have treated the other Apostles confession with the utter scepticism which could be interpreted as a total rejection of their sanity. Here were at least 10 people, 10 very close friends, who he had lived with as a close knit family for three years; he knew their characters and honest dispositions, they were serious people who had as himself been witnesses to countless miraculous events that most people would had rejected as fictional. Only just a week ago he was witness to Christ raising Lazarus who had been dead for four days; why then should one more miracle be so difficult for him to believe in?
The Gospel account continues a week after: “And after eight days again his disciples were within, and Thomas with them: then came Jesus, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, Peace be unto you.” Again John tells us that the doors were shut and Christ miraculously appeared in their midst out of nowhere. “Then saith he to Thomas, Reach hither thy finger, and behold my hands; and reach hither thy hand, and thrust it into my side: and be not faithless, but believing.”
Jesus had heard Thomas’ demands or provocation and invites him to proceed with the demanded test. The unbelieving disciple already sees Christ, but he is now asked to complete the test by adding the touching of the hands and of the side. Thomas, however, doesn’t complete his demanded test. Seeing was enough proof and with a giant step he leaps from the state of unbelieving to the state of believing. Suddenly he is convinced that the one whom he sees, is the risen Lord, the very same Jesus whom he knew, whom he followed and had been a companion for the past three years. One would have expected Thomas to apologise for not believing or even justify his unbelief, but instead without any our words he responds with an astonishing confession of faith; he answers and says: “My Lord and my God.” He is not only convinced that who he sees in front of him is the Risen Lord, but also that Jesus is God. This declaration of faith is unique. No other disciple in the Gospels has used such an advanced creedal formula for expressing his faith in Christ who is now called Lord and God. Only Peter, when Jesus had asked them who they thought he was, answered and said “Thou art the Christ the Son of the Living God.” (Matth. 16: 16) But now Thomas’s confession of faith, although short, assigns to Jesus the attributes of Lord and God in the same way Israel addressed God in the Old Testament.
When Jehovah Witnesses, who don’t believe that Jesus is God, are confronted with this statement of faith made by Thomas, they say that Thomas made a mistake, but if it was a mistake then why didn’t Jesus correct him. If Thomas had made a mistake then Jesus shouldn’t have and wouldn’t have accepted this title which belongs only to God and would have corrected Thomas for calling him God, because it would infringe on God’s rights. To accept the title can only mean that he was indeed our Lord and God. It is precisely because Christ proclaimed himself as Lord and God that the Jews sought to stone him as testified in the Gospel of St. John: “For a good work we stone thee not; but for blasphemy; and because that thou, being a man, makest thyself God.” (10:33)
Jesus accepted Thomas’ confession because he was Lord and God and immediately said to him: “Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Jesus here remarks on two types of faith: the kind of faith Thomas and the other Apostles had, a visual experience to believe, and a faith which is based only from hearing. With the first part of the statement, Jesus clearly speaks of a faith which is the consequence of a sight experience, but he doesn’t say anything to make us think that this kind of faith has a diminished value. The second part of Jesus’ statement is a beatitude which presents a different type of faith, namely a faith not depending on visual experiences: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” Who are the recipients of such a blessing? Definitely the great number of the larger circle of the disciples who had not seen the risen Lord with their own eyes but relied on the eyewitness of the other disciples. Also the Christians living around the end of the first century AD for whom John the Evangelist writes his Gospel. The majority of these people were born years after the resurrection and the ascension of Christ, therefore they could not have seen him. They are proclaimed blessed because they have arrived at the state of believing in the risen Lord without the assistance or proof of immediate, direct and personal ocular experience. To these we can add every Christian up to our present age who believes that Christ is God. I would even go further and say that Christians of our times are more blessed that those Christians of the first century because although they might not have seen the Risen Christ, a great many were eye-witnesses to countless miracles performed by the Apostles: miracles which were deemed necessary to convince the thousands who heard their preaching that Jesus was indeed the one and only true God.
Christians of our time basically have to rely on and fully accept the apostolic eyewitness and tradition about Jesus. They have to follow a way very different from the way of Thomas and the other Apostles. If it was difficult for the Apostles to believe in the Resurrection even though they were witnesses to Christ raising from the dead Jairus’ daughter, the widow’s only son and Lazarus who had been dead four days, how much more difficult is it for someone to believe in Christ after two thousand years have past without any shred of evidence except by something that he reads in a book called the New Testament. Many people today repeat what Thomas said: “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.” The need to see to believe is a human attribute and we should not expect everyone to believe just because we believe, neither should we condemn them for their unbelief. For those of us who have not seen yet have believed, let us take comfort in the fact that Christ has called us blessed. And as Peter in his first Epistle says: “Whom having not seen (Christ), you love; in whom, though now you see him not, yet believing, you rejoice with joy unspeakable and full of glory.”
Thomas’ demands have to this present day characterized him as “The Doubting Thomas” but we can also say that he said what he said because he believed correctly; because he believed in an orthodox way. Therefore we could call him “The Right-believing Thomas.” What do I mean by this? Paul tells us that we must test the spirits to see if they are from God lest we be deluded by the devil. All the fathers of the Church warn us not to immediately trust an apparition, because demons can also appear as angels of light or as one of the saints and even as Christ, so we should not trust what we see. We have also the example of the Mother of God herself who, when told by the Archangel Gabriel that she would receive in her womb the Son of God and that her aged and barren cousin Elisabeth was also with child, did not disbelief, but wanted verification. Thus she immediately set forth to go to Elisabeth to see and verify for herself the things told her by the angel. And that is the Orthodox way: not to immediately accept, neither to disbelief, but to verify.
Christ is risen from the dead, by death he hath overcome death and to them in the graves hath he given life.