Jesus and Thomas -- John 20:24-29
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’ A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’
Although I LOVE it, as much as I plan and pray and try every year, Lent can still get to be a drag after a while. Yes, there, I said it. What I look forward to most is the vespers before Triduum. It’s a beautiful service called The Office of Tenebrae and some of us make the pilgrimage up to St. Thomas on Fifth Avenue for theirs … it’s funny, when I first started going to St. Luke’s I would see other St. Lukers there and think we were all doing something slightly naughty, and that’s kind of hilarious to me in hindsight … as the last rays of the winter sun are setting, the service begins. The service feels very monastic and is treated with great reverence. As we walk in, we see a hearse in the chancel with seven candles glowing brightly. From St. Thomas’ website:
Tenebrae means “shadows” and refers to the gradual extinguishing of candles and lights as the service proceeds, until only one candle remains. This service anticipates the monastic offices for the last three days of Holy Week.
The choir and cantors progress through a series of antiphons and Psalms. At the end of each Psalm, a candle is extinguished and the lights high above the congregation are dimmed a bit more. … The Lord's Prayer is said, and a series of three lessons and three responsories are sung. This is followed by the Lauds, another series of antiphons and Psalms during which three more candles are extinguished and now the nave of the church is very near dark.
Near the end of the canticle, acolytes emerge to extinguish the altar candles, leaving only the seventh candle lit.
During the repetition of the antiphon after the canticle, the Verger climbs a ladder, removes the candle, and as the choir sings the motet, she takes it toward the High Altar, through the Sanctuary gate, and then hides it in a small room hidden behind the door to the north side of the High Altar.
The congregation says the Lord's Prayer and the choir sings the Miserere. The Officiant says a prayer and adds (whispering to himself under his breath): “...who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.”
A loud sound fills the church. Christ is dead. The organ is outraged; the choristers beat their books against their stalls.
Then, in complete silence, the candle emerges from its hiding place. It is returned to its place high above the chancel. By its light all leave in silence.
In my heart, I’m a simple farm gewrl and I’m not impressed by fancy city things but I gotta tell you, even after living in New York all these years, I can’t describe the awe I feel sitting in that landmark building erected in 1911. As you’re listening to the plainchant of the Psalms, you’re staring at the 60 figures of the magnificent reredos which is 80 feet high, with every Saint and Angel imaginable standing over you. As the lights begin to be extinguished, you marvel at the vaulted ceilings which disappear in to the heavens like the enchanted ceiling in the Hogwarts refectory, and you realize the building is stone on stone, without any steel reinforcing, and then all you can see is a blue-you’ve-never-imagined-backed-by-sunset blue stained glass windows in a darkened church. You’re lulled in to a meditative trance, shedding yourself of the Lenten discipline, preparing yourself for the upcoming services, pushing thoughts of the busy-ness of Holy Week out of your mind and then BAM ! someone LEANS on the organ, the choristers HAMMER their books against the stalls, drumming, drumming, you’re shocked in to a wall of noise and realize the Christ is DEAD ! We’re left ALONE in this world! and the rest is silence. Your ears are ringing from the clamour and you’re brought back stunned in to your body, in to the darkness. Alone. Then, praise the name of God, we see a dim flicker, a promise, a hope, very far away, and we realize the Light of the World is still among us. We realize God would never leave us in this world alone, to stumble about. We see the candle coming slowly toward us, bobbing in the darkness, growing larger and brighter and finally, FINALLY, being re-placed in the hearse to flicker among us again. There is hope that soon the skies will fill with full light, the dawn will come, the sun will rise again. There is hope that soon we will be rejoined to our Savior.
It’s impossible to convey to you on a page the impact this service has on me. There were tears in my eyes and chills down my spine in just typing it. One year I remember having a particularly difficult Lent and coming out of the service down the steps on to Fifth Avenue yelling, “I BEELIEVE ! ! I GET IT ! IT'S ALL TRUE !” because I think many people think we’re crazy to dedicate our entire lives to a system of thinking based on stories of a virgin birth and a resurrected Saviour. This is why I think poor old “Doubting” Thomas gets a bum rap.
Firstly, it’s alarming and comforting that Thomas said something while Jesus was supposedly dead in the tomb and then when Jesus shows up he knows the doubts Thomas had uttered. Secondly, it’s always been completely trippy to me that Jesus has Thomas stick his hand in Jesus’ wounds.
I grew up severely Roman Catholic where we celebrated a Tridentine Mass and there were crucifixes everywhere – some mild, some alarming, some dripping blood, some with the corpus looking at you, and, especially around Holy Week, some of the priests would get in to describing the scourging of Christ and his crucifixion in vivid detail, impressing upon us all how our sins had caused the necessity of his propitiation and every slight we committed was a hammer hitting a nail deeper in to Jesus’ flesh. Nice, right? We were, like, seven. So, anyway, I think whenever I heard the telling of this story of Thomas, I pushed this vivid details in to the back of my mind and didn’t truly contemplate what it actually looked like when Thomas stuck his fingers in Christ’s wounds.
I would never have had the nerve to doubt Jesus openly. I would have, as is often said of our Blessed Virgin, “hid these things in my heart”. The fact that Thomas was bold enough to express his doubt I believe took a great deal of courage. But what is most striking to me about this incident brings to mind that old chestnut: “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary; for those who do not believe, no explanation will suffice.” Even with the witnesses I have at Tenebrae, each of us has a different experience, but in the telling, I can’t explain how completely at peace one is and how jarring the organ and the hammering is and what it does to your spirit. I myself am moved beyond words and I come out of it all tingly and ready for Holy Week. Many people could report they had seen Jesus risen from the dead, but Jesus secured a host of witnesses while Thomas was probing his wounds so that ALL present could say, I was there … I SAW Thomas’ hand disappear in to the marks in His hands, I SAW Thomas’ hand disappear in to His side … so that through Thomas’ doubt, we were all given a special gift, a first-hand account, a witness. I also think this is why we’re called in to community together … not to experience our faith on our own, but together with like minds and compassionate hearts.
We must humble ourselves enough to come to God with our doubts and fears. God is so faithful to offer us kindness and guidance and support in leading us through our doubts and in to the blessed assurance of knowledge and understanding. This is our resurrection journey … the pursuit of Wisdom through our faith. The gift is the true peace of complete knowing.