Melkite Greek Catholic Church
 
THE SUNDAY AFTER PASCHA is informally called Thomas Sunday because of the Gospel read on this day, Jn 20:19-31. Many people assume this means that Thomas Sunday is the feast of St Thomas. In fact, St Thomas is remembered in the Byzantine calendar on October 6. What we remember today is rather St Thomas’ confession of faith upon seeing the risen Christ, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).

The meaning of this event is spelled out for us by the Lord in the following verse: “Jesus said to him, ‘Thomas, because you have seen Me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed’” (v.29). And if we did not see the implications of that statement for ourselves, the Gospel concludes this passage by saying, “And truly Jesus did many other signs in the presence of His 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” (vv. 30, 31).

Thomas’ Confession

In our culture the exclamation “My Lord and my God!” sounds like a rather banal exclamation of surprise. Sadly, we are used to hearing casually “Oh, God!” or even the Holy Name, “Jesus Christ!” taken in vain. Yet, in first-century Judea – and among many Orthodox Jews today – saying the name of God even in prayer would be considered presumptuous. Since the third century BC Jews have refrained from using the name of God even when reading the Torah. Only the high priest was permitted to read the name of God as written in the Torah, and only on Yom Kippur. Many Jews today simply say HaShem (the Name) when reading such passages or referring to God.

Claiming to be the Son of God was blasphemy in the eyes of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council of elders in Jerusalem. The Gospel indicates that Jesus was condemned to death precisely for making this claim. “And the high priest answered and said to Him, ‘I put You under oath by the living God: Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God!’ Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said... Then the high priest tore his clothes, saying, ‘He has spoken blasphemy! What further need do we have of witnesses? Look, now you have heard His blasphemy! What do you think?’ They answered and said, ‘He is deserving of death’” (Matthew 26:63-65).

Claiming to see Christ in glory caused the death of the first martyr, St Stephen, as well. Brought before the Sanhedrin he spoke of God’s mercy toward Israel, and the elders listed. But then he said, “‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’ Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:56-58).

Clearly Thomas’ exclamation is presented in the Gospel as an act of faith in Jesus as Lord.

The Apostles’ Teaching

From the beginning, the Apostles taught that Jesus, risen from the dead, was Messiah and Lord. Believers were taught to make this their act of Christian faith: “…if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). They ascribed to Christ the title Lord (Kyrios in Greek) which was used in the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, as the equivalent of God’s un-pronounceable name. To call Jesus Lord meant that you were calling Him God: precisely the confession of Thomas.

In the Roman world of the Apostles’ day, Lord was the title of the Emperor: the one who governed the lives of all his subjects. To call Jesus Lord was perceived by many as treason and caused the persecution of many, especially since the Christians often insisted that Jesus alone was Lord. The Roman world had many gods and goddesses; they could easily find room for one more. To claim, as we continue to do in our Liturgy, that only “one is holy, one is Lord: Jesus Christ” was another matter.

For a believer to claim that Jesus was Lord also meant that he or she was committed to Jesus’ way of life. The usual way of doing things in society was now subject to a new criterion for believers: the Gospel of Christ. This was perceived as unpatriotic by many Romans, to use a contemporary term. Christians didn’t give undivided allegiance to Rome – they had another Lord and another way of life.

Today in many societies Christians are perceived as second-class citizens because they do not follow the dominant culture. This was always true in Islam but is increasingly so in the secular west as well. In Great Britain, for example, Labour Party leader Andy Burnham has pledged to compel all faith schools to teach about gay “rights,” saying he has “no support” for religious schools who argue that it may conflict with their teachings. The consequence for Christians today is that we may be more frequently forced to choose between following the secular values of the state and its culture or the godly values of the Gospel. Choose your Lord. Jesus’ contemporaries in the wider society did not write about Him. They gradually began writing about His followers and thereby showed us what the first Christians believed about Him. From ad 111-113 Pliny the Younger (Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus) was the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minor. He wrote to Emperor Trajan for advice on how to deal with Christians, whose gatherings he described in part like this: “They recited a hymn antiphonally to Christus as to a god…” (Epistles book 10, letter 96). As a pagan, Pliny was used to the many gods and goddesses venerated in Roman religion as so he described the Christians as reverencing Christ as “a god.” The Christians would never have said it quite like that, but Pliny is nonetheless witnessing that Christians considered Christ as divine.

A similar witness from the pagan world is Lucian of Samosata (c. ad 115-c. 200), a popular satirist in the Greek world of Asia Minor, who frequently lampooned the gods and public figures of his world as well as those who revere them. In his Passing of Peregrinus, 11 he notes that “The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day – the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. …it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, deny the gods of Greece and worship the crucified sage and live after his laws.”

While Lucian does not call Jesus “a god,” he testifies that Christians worship Him instead of the gods of Greece. For them, He is clearly divine. While Jesus never said, “I am God.” All the things He did and said convinced the Apostles that He is God.

It would take the next two centuries for the Church, in response to numerous heresies, to define clearly how the Son of God was equal to the Father, and was, at the same time, both God and Man. At the First Council of Nicaea (ad 325), the description of Christ which we find in the Creed became the universal way of professing the truth of the Lord Jesus: “the Only-begotten Son of God, Light from Light, true God from true God – begotten, not made, of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made.”

While Thomas the Apostle may not have been able to articulate the Nicene definition of Christ, the Holy Spirit speaking through him gave us the words to express the Church’s perennial faith in Christ: “You are my Lord and my God”
 
FOR MOST AMERICANS a holiday is a one-day affair – at most, a holiday weekend. In the Church, however, Pascha, the Feast of Feasts, is celebrated for a much longer period. We observe Christ’s resurrection for forty days, concluding it with the Great Feast of His Holy Ascension and climaxed with the Great Feast of Pentecost. Based on the fifty days between Pascha and Pentecost this season – and the book which contains the services celebrated every day – is called the Pentecostarion. Pentecostos is the Greek word for fiftieth. The paschal season contains a number of special commemorations including:
  • Bright Week – For the first week of Pascha the daily services are almost identical to the services of Pascha itself. One important characteristic of this week’s services is that they include no readings from the Psalter. With Pascha the New Covenant is in force – to emphasize this spiritual reality nothing from the Old Covenant is read this week.
  • Successive Weeks – While the services resume their regular format there are some reminders of the resurrection. “Christ is risen” and “Now that we have seen the resurrection of Christ” are sung every day. The Sunday resurrectional services in the eight tones are sung daily as well. On Sundays a liti procession and the singing of the Paschalia and the paschal canon form part of our Church’s worship.
  • Mid-Pentecost – At the mid-point of the season we celebrate the feast of Mid-Pentecost, recalling Christ’s teaching in the temple and His promise of the Holy Spirit. This feast, unique to the Byzantine rite, is so emphasized because it was the patronal feast of the Great Church of Constantinople, Aghia Sophia (Christ, the Holy Wisdom).
“We have come to the middle of those days which began with the saving Resurrection of Christ our God and end with the divine feast of Pentecost! Truly this day shines with the light of both feasts and unites them both. It radiates with the announcement of the Ascension of the Lord.”

Christ the Source of Living Water

The central theme of the Pentecostarion is that, through the resurrection, the Holy Spirit is bestowed upon the Church to transform the world. This extraordinary gift was expressed by Christ Himself in the image of living water, when He celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem with His disciples. “On the last and greatest day of the festival, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this He meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were later to receive. Up to that time the Spirit had not been given, since Jesus had not yet been glorified” (John 7:37-9). This passage, read at the Divine Liturgy on Pentecost, sets forth the paschal mystery as a three-stage process. The first step is the glorification of Jesus, by which the Gospel means His saving death on the cross. The cross was hardly glory in the world’s eyes, but the eyes of faith sees Christ’s humbling Himself to death as His glory, as Christ said before His arrest, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (John 13:31). This is why the inscription on the cross in Byzantine churches is not the one placed there by Pilate (“the king of the Jews”) but rather “the King of glory.” The world sees glory in terms of wealth, power, and ostentatious display. There is none of that in the cross. Christ’s “glory” is found in the depths to which He would go to take on our humanity, embracing even rejection, humiliation and death. This is why St Paul would say, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God… but we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18, 23-25). The second stage in the Gospel exposition of the paschal mystery is the bestowal of the Holy Spirit. This was possible only as a consequence of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, His resurrection and His ascension. We look again to Christ’s words here: “If I do not go away, the Helper [Paraclete] will not come to you; but if I depart, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7). “Going away” here means Christ’s return to the Father upon the completion of His earthly ministry. The Holy Spirit would remain with the Church forever, according to Christ’s promise: “I will pray the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever —  the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him” (John 14:16-17). The human nature which the Son of God assumed was necessarily limited by space and time. His physical presence on earth would be as temporary as is the presence of any one of us. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand did not become man and so His presence is not limited in this way; once given to us, He remains forever. These two stages are celebrated during the Pentecostarion on the feasts of Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost. The third step set forth in Jn 7, quoted above, is that the Spirit flow through the Church to water the whole creation. It is God’s plan that the “rivers of living water will flow from within” the believer. The Holy Spirit is not given in order to remain stagnant in us but to flow out and bring life to the world. As has often been said, the Holy Spirit is more like the Jordan River than the Dead Sea. That this overflowing of the Spirit has in fact occurred is the reason for the final observance of the Pentecostarion, the Sunday of All Saints. The saints are proof that the Holy Spirit has been bestowed and has transformed people of every generation since Pentecost. They in turn have allowed this living water to touch us as well through their intercessions and through the power manifested in their relics and icons. The Holy Spirit did not take on our flesh; but to see His “face” we only need to look at the saints. The Holy Spirit is meant to flow through us as well inasmuch as we too have received Him in baptism. We are thus continually called to become who we are, as many Fathers have put it: sharers in God’s grace in whatever measure each person receives. As soon as the festive Pentecostarion season closes, we enter the Fast of the Apostles: returning to the business of Christian living, to taking up our vocation as Spirit-bearers.
From the Paschalia
Our Passover, Christ the Redeemer, is revealed to us today as a noble Passover. This is a new and holy Passover, a mystical Passover, a blameless Passover, a glorious Passover, a Passover for the faithful, a Passover that opens for us the gates of Paradise, a Passover that sanctifies all believers. Come back from what you have seen, O women heralds of good tidings, and say to Sion: “Accept from us the joyful announcement of the Resurrection of Christ! O Jerusalem, rejoice, exult and leap for joy! For you have seen Christ the King coming out of the tomb as fair as a bridegroom!” A glorious Passover has shone upon us: a Passover of the Lord, a Passover perfectly honorable. Let us embrace one another with joy! O, what a Passover, delivering from sorrow: for Christ, coming out of the tomb as from a bridal chamber, fills the women with joy by telling them to bring this happy news to the disciples.
 
One feature of the Paschal season in Byzantine Churches is the reading of the Acts of the Apostles. Every day, beginning with Pascha itself, this story of the early Church is read at the Divine Liturgy. While the text of Acts itself begins with Christ’s ascension, our public reading of it begins as we commemorate His resurrection. While Christ’s followers struggled until Pentecost to grasp the reality of the resurrection and its meaning for mankind, the Church sees Pascha as the source of its life, the fountainhead of its existence to this day. Divine power in the Church comes from the empty tomb and the blessing of the risen Christ upon His disciples – “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22) – which we also hear read on this Sunday. The paschal liberation in Christ from captivity to death begins to touch individuals and communities as the Church develops in the first century AD. Acts paints a picture of the first Christian community in Jerusalem, then in Samaria, in Damascus and Antioch and the cities of Asia Minor. Finally Acts affirms that within the lifetime of the apostles a Church had been established in Rome, capital of the empire, the focus of life in the Mediterranean world of that era. The events recorded in this book would occur again and again through the centuries as the Church became established among different peoples and cultures. Some of these characteristics listed in today’s passage, Acts 5:12-20, are: Signs and Wonders (vv.12, 14-16) – The Church is first of all characterized as a transforming presence, just as Christ’s own earthly ministry was, according to the Gospels. The sick are healed just by Peter’s passing shadow, and those “tormented by unclean spirits” (v.16) are delivered. To this day physical healings are regularly reported at saints’ graves or shrines, in connection with their relics or wonder-working icons. The 10th-century shrine of St George near Istanbul is one such place. Remarkable here is that most of those who come by the thousands to this shrine are Muslims. One of the priests at the shrine, Father Ephrem, confided, “During my three years here, we ourselves are witnesses of miracles, such as the healing of paralytics, mutes, and the giving birth to children.” Just as physical healing was not the chief object of Christ’s ministry, the Church’s focus is chiefly on spiritually healing the whole person. The Church’s therapy may include Confession, spiritual guidance and the Mystery of Holy Unction, given “for healing, for relief from every passion, from defilement of flesh and spirit, and from every illness” (oil blessing prayer). Proclaiming Christ (v. 12) – Rabbis and scholars would regularly be found gathering at Solomon’s Porch, a colonnade east of the temple. It became the place where the first followers of Jesus would go to share the Gospel, sure of a curious audience. The town square and the coffee house have in their time been places where Christians have gone to gather and to make their faith known to others. Today cyberspace may be the ultimate Solomon’s Porch. As Pope Benedict XVI recently wrote, “I would like then to invite Christians, confidently and with an informed and responsible creativity, to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible… In this field too we are called to proclaim our faith that Christ is God, the Savior of humanity and of history, the one in whom all things find their fulfillment.” Reluctance of the Religious Establishment (v. 13) – While people from the Jewish rank and file were drawn to the Gospel message, their religious leaders at first held back and then directly opposed this teaching which threatened their power among the people. The apostles encountered the same reception from the leaders of Israel as had the Lord Jesus, John the Forerunner and other prophets. Politicians – be they political or religious – may be more concerned with keeping “good order” than with seeking the will of God. A famous expression of this conflict between leaders and the Christ of the Gospel is the “Parable of the Grand Inquisitor” in Feodor Dostoievsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. In it an atheist tells his brother, a monk, that Christ would be arrested and condemned to death were He to return today because His teachings would disturb the established way things are done. Growth (v.14) – A major theme in the book of Acts is that, before the death of the chief apostles, the Church had spread from the first group at Solomon’s Porch to the very heart of the empire, Rome itself. The Church began with “locals,” Jews from Galilee and Judea. Hellenized (Greek-speaking) Jews soon joined them as did “proselytes,” those pagans who had adopted the Jewish belief in one God, but had not formally joined the Jewish people as this would demand complete separation from their non-believing family and associates. Finally other pagans, never drawn to Judaism began accepting Christ ultimately outnumbering the first Jewish believers. Is the number of Christians still growing today? In 2011 BBC reported that more people go to church on Sunday in China than in the whole of Europe. In 1900 there were approximately 10 million Christians in Africa, mostly in the historic Coptic and Ethiopian Churches and among Italians, Greeks and other settlers. A little over a century later the number has reached 500 million. And where, in 1900, Africans accounted for only 2% of the world’s Christians, today they number 20%. Persecution (v. 17-18) – As the number of Christian’s in the Roman Empire grew, they came to be seen as a threat to the state. Christians in the empire were persecuted from time to time and from region to region until ad 311, when the Great Persecution of Diocletian came to an end. Religious persecution has often been carried out with political overtones. When Rome was persecuting Christians, they were welcomed in its neighboring rival, the Persian Empire. When Rome embraced Christianity the Persians began persecuting Christians as Roman sympathizers. Today Christians may be persecuted outright for political reasons, as in North Korea, or in strongholds of other religions in Asia and Africa. In the historically Christian nations of the West, the contemporary “powers that be” have increasingly marginalized religion, striving to keep it behind church doors for people who fancy that sort of thing. Public figures regularly pit Christian values against “human rights,” “women’s health” and the like. Thus even Mother Teresa of Calcutta was vilified for calling abortion “a great destroyer of peace” when accepting the 1979 Nobel Peace Prize. One lives Gospel values in the public sector at one’s own risk. Divine Protection (vv.19-20) – The apostles, miraculously delivered from prison, went right back to the temple. As was reported to the Sanhedrin: “Look, the men whom you put in prison are standing in the temple and teaching the people!” (v. 25). When questioned about why they had disobeyed the council’s demand that they stop, Peter and the others replied with a phrase that has repeatedly been used since against opponents of the Gospel: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (v. 29). From the apostles’ preaching at Solomon’s Porch to our own day the Holy Spirit, given by Christ, has protected and made fruitful the proclamation of the Gospel.
 
OH, MY GOD! – an exclamation that we hear from all kinds of people, including atheists. In ordinary casual speech it doesn’t connote belief, prayer or hope. Traditionally the apostle Thomas’ words to the risen Christ, “My Lord and My God” (John 20:28) have been understood as a confession of the Lord’s divinity. Muslims have customarily seen these words as simply an exclamation of surprise – like “Oh, my God!” – when Thomas saw that Jesus was alive. Who’s right?

Reverence for God’s Holy Name

We know from the Old Testament that Jews have a particular reverence for the name of God. The Torah enjoined using God’s name respectfully in the Ten Commandments. “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7; Deuteronomy 5:11). To this day Orthodox Jews will not even say the Hebrew name of God, Yahweh, when reading the Scriptures, replacing it with the word LORD wherever it occurs. Many Orthodox Jews will not even write the word God in English, as a sign of respect. They will only write “G_d” instead. A God-fearing Jew like Thomas would scarcely have used God’s name as an exclamation.

The Lord Jesus in the Gospel of John

Even more to the point is the style and structure of the Gospel of John. The Gospel begins with an allusion to the first words of the Torah – “In the beginning” – but the evangelist is not talking about the material creation. He is writing about the eternal Word of God and proclaiming that God’s Word took flesh in Jesus (John 1:1-19). And so the Gospel begins with a statement of faith in the incarnation of the divine Word of God. Throughout the Gospel Jesus’ enemies charge that He “makes himself equal to God” (5:18) and “makes himself God” (10:34). John records Jesus’ own words, “I and My Father are one” and the reaction they prompted, “Then the Jews took up stones again to stone Him” (John 10:30-31). The evangelist concludes the Gospel with the same teaching, expressed in Thomas’ confession of Christ as Lord and God. And if the reader still doesn’t get it, he adds “…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 20:31). From its beginning and throughout to its end the Gospel of John proclaims again and again that Jesus is the Son of God.

And Yet Truly One of Us

In the first centuries after Christ there was a great deal of controversy concerning the nature of Christ. Was He God? Was He Man? How could He be both? One group in that period, the Docetists, stressed the divinity of Christ to such a degree that they minimized His humanity. How could the Son of God really die on the cross, they wondered. Their answer was that it would be improper for Him to actually suffer in this way; and so, they reasoned, He only seemed to die. St Athanasius the Great examined the question more closely. He saw Christ’s humanity as real but transformed by the presence of the Word of God. “The body of the Word, he wrote, “being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all mankind was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were by the same act utterly abolished.” Not only did the Lord, being mortal, have to die as mortals do, Athanasius continued; He could only die at the hands of others. “The death of men under ordinary circumstances is the result of their natural weakness. They are essentially impermanent, so after a time they fall ill and, when worn out, they die. “But the Lord is not like that. He is not weak. He is the Power of God, the Word of God and very Life Itself. If He had died quietly in His bed like other men, it would have looked… as though He was indeed no more than other men.” “He accepted and bore upon the cross a death inflicted by others – and those others His special enemies – a death which was to them supremely unbearable and terrible to face. He did this in order that, by destroying even this death, He might Himself be believed to be the Life, and the power of death be recognized as finally annulled. A marvelous and mighty paradox has thus occurred, for the death they thought to inflict on Him as dishonor and disgrace has become the glorious monument to death’s defeat” (On the Incarnation 21, 24). Truly slain as true Man and truly risen as Lord and God – to Jesus the Word of God incarnate be glory forever and ever!

A Reflection for Thomas Sunday

Based on the Homily for April 13th, “On Thomas’ Proof by Experience,” in The Prolog from Ochrid by St. Nikolai Velimirovich and adapted by Anna W. Strelka. When the apostle Thomas touched the wounds of the Lord Jesus, he cried: My Lord and my God. When Mary Magdalen heard the voice of the Risen One in the garden she exclaimed in her soul My Lord and my God. When Saul saw the light and heard the words of the Risen One he acknowledged My Lord and my God. When the pagans saw how countless martyrs endured terrible sufferings with joy they asked, “Who is this Christ?” and the martyrs acknowledged My Lord and my God. When people ridiculed the army of monks and asked them, “For whom do you take on these ascetic labors?” the monks had one reply: My Lord and my God. When people ridiculed maidens vowed to virginity and asked them, “For whom do you give up marriage?” the maidens had one reply: My Lord and my God. When lovers of money asked those who gave up their wealth, “For whose sake did you give up your riches and become poor?” they answered the same thing: My Lord and my God. Some saw Him and said My Lord and my God. Some only heard Him and said My Lord and my God. Some touched Him and said My Lord and my God. Some perceived Him in the fabric of events and in the destinies of peoples and said My Lord and my God. Some came to know Him by some sign and cried out My Lord and my God. Some felt His presence in their lives and cried out My Lord and my God. And some heard about Him from others, yet believed and cried out: My Lord and my God. Truly these last are the most blessed!

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