1. In the short time following the announcement of the death of the Duke of Edinburgh, the media have been quite fulsome in their coverage and praise of Prince Philip's qualities of service, duty and loyalty to the Queen and his adopted country. The briefest glance at columns written about him make it clear that he was someone who had a robust sense of purpose, who was decisive and clear-sighted; not given to vacillation, hesitancy or doubt.
For many of us, by contrast, anxiety and doubt seem to be hard to avoid. Living through this precarious time has brought its share of issues which have had an effect on our equilibrium and mental well-being.
The kind of isolation that we continue to endure does nothing to help allay worries and doubts. We listen to News bulletins and we are left to mull over what we have heard. We want to be persuaded that all will be well, but niggling fears linger and we find ourselves besieged by doubt.
This frame of mind can let us relate to a central figure in this Sunday's Gospel - 'Doubting Thomas'. We can feel his nervous anxiety. We can feel for him, as he struggles to let go of his grief for a crucified Jesus and step into what seems to be illusion.
Risen Christ with Apostles; 15th century Codex of Predis,
Royal Library, Turin
3. The text pointedly remarks that 'Thomas called the Twin, who was one of the Twelve, was not with them when Jesus came.' (20;24) We then come to the famous 'doubt'. It turns out to be less a doubt, than a point-blank refusal to raise his hopes. 'Unless I can see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made, and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe.' (20;25) And we are left with this impasse of belief for a full week. Not till 'eight days later', is the situation resolved. Jesus again bestows his peace on the disciples and then makes it his business to address Thomas's disbelief. 'Then he spoke to Thomas,'Put your finger here; look here are my hands. Give me your hand; put it into my side. Doubt no longer but believe.' (20;27)
Plaque with 'Doubting Thomas'; Painted Walrus Ivory
1140-1160, Cologne, now in the Met Museum, New York.
What's in a Name?
A. Unusually, this Sunday has had more than its fair share of name-changes. In earlier times, it was known by the Latin title, Dominica in Albis (Depositis) - in English, 'Low Sunday'. This marked the end of the Octave of Easter. It had been the custom for neophytes (the newly baptised) to receive a white garment at their Baptism during the Easter Vigil. This was a sign that they had had forgiveness from sin and that they had put aside their former ways. After the Octave, they returned to Church (where they had been instructed in their Christian duties each day of this week). Technically, at Vespers on the Saturday (Sabato in Albis) they removed the white garment and returned to secular dress. Hence the name: The 'Sunday in which the white garments are laid aside'.
Initially, when this ceremony took place in Rome - it later spread elsewhere - the Pope would give each of the neophytes an 'Agnus Dei'. These were wax discs imprinted with the emblem of the Lamb of God. The Pope blessed these in Easter Water mingled with Chrism and balsam on the Wednesday of Easter Week. Traditionally, the Cistercians were entrusted with the care of the wax discs.
In later times, an 'Agnus Dei' could be obtained by any of the faithful whose devotion might be assisted by the sacramental. Generally, they ceased to be officially used after the pontificate of John XXIII.
Pope Francis with the Queen and Prince Philip
Vatican Palace, 2014
2. John in his Gospel invites us to spirit ourselves into that room behind closed doors where the disciples are gathered 'for fear of the Jews'. Quite casually, John simply states that 'Jesus came and stood among them.' (John 20;20) Jesus greets his disciples with the reassuring words, 'Peace be with you.' Forestalling their shock and probably incredulity, he 'shows them his hands and his side.' The effect of his gift of 'shalom' and the evidence of their eyes, seeing the wounds of the crucifixion, 'the disciples were filled with joy when they saw the Lord.' (20; 21). Jesus strengthens their sense of calm with a further 'Peace be with you.' This time, though, the gift comes with a gift-tag, a mission. This tremendous gift of calm and peace is not to be kept to themselves. Jesus now insists that they become 'apostles'. In the Greek text, Jesus literally says, 'as the Father has apostled (sent) me' καθὼς ἀπέσταλκέν με ό πατήρ, so am I sending you. The very nature of apostle is to be sent to carry out a mission. The precise mission - what they are being sent to do, is to share Christ's 'shalom' with the world. He breathes on them - the breath or 'ruah' of God: the Holy Spirit is given to them. 'Receive the Holy Spirit. For those whose sins you forgive, they are forgiven.(20; 23) This forgiveness, the cancelling out of the burden of sin, the offer of reconciliation with God through the Risen Jesus is indeed the guarantor of peace. Accessing this gift bestowed on the apostles is the channel of peace. This is no polite greeting that Jesus mutters - he empowers his disciples to change the world.
Thomas touches the Risen Christ. Medieval Choir screen, Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris
4. Perhaps we might not have expected such painful disbelief in Thomas, but perhaps we can also take great comfort from it, especially in our own moments of pain, when belief can so easily make room for doubt, disbelief and anxiety.
The next words of Thomas certainly retract any hesitancy or incredulity: 'Thomas replied, 'My Lord and my God!' (20;28) How often that profession of faith is repeated - traditionally for many in a pious prayer at the Consecration of the Mass.
We probably envy Thomas this unassailable assurance of the Resurrection. Jesus has us in mind in his next words, a gentle chide for Thomas, but a blessing for us: ' You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.' (20;29)
We need not feel guilt or worry about moments of anxiety, hesitancy or doubt. Very recently, Pope Francis made this point in an interview for a new book ('Dei Vizi e delle Virtù', by Don Marco Pozza). The Pope talked about a faith tested by doubts. He suggested that a faith without doubts cannot advance. 'Crises of faith are not failures of faith. On the contrary, they reveal the need and desire to enter more fully into the depths of the mystery of God. A faith without these trials would make me doubt if it is real faith.' The Pope cites the numerous examples of doubt in the faith journey of many saints.
St. Thomas the Apostle
We do not know… how can we know the way?”
Courageous master of the awkward question,
You spoke the words the others dared not say
And cut through their evasion and abstraction.
Oh doubting Thomas, father of my faith,
You put your finger on the nub of things
We cannot love some disembodied wraith,
But flesh and blood must be our king of kings.
Your teaching is to touch, embrace, anoint,
Feel after Him and find Him in the flesh.
Because He loved your awkward counter-point
The Word has heard and granted you your wish.
Oh place my hands with yours, help me divine
The wounded God whose wounds are healing mine.
Rev. Dr. Malcolm Guite
'Sounding the Seasons'
An 'Agnus Dei' blessed by Pope Pius IX, 1877
Victor Hugo's novel, 'Notre Dame de Paris'.
C. With the reforms of the Mass and the Liturgical Calendar(1969), this Sunday was finally designated rather simply as 'The Second Sunday of Easter'. It remained such, although often still called 'Low Sunday' - which one author recently explained as being because of the low numbers attending church, exhausted by the rigours of Holy Week! In fact it was 'low' in comparison with the very highest form of celebration for the Church's greatest feast, Easter Sunday.
In the year 2000, St. Pope John Paul II canonised St. Faustina Kowalska on 30th April which was the Second Sunday of Easter, and on this occasion altered the Liturgical Calendar to allow the celebration of Divine Mercy on this Sunday. The Calendar designates it as 'Dominica II Paschae seu de Divina Misericordia'.
No other Sunday has had quite the same variety of names. Reflecting on this name-journey can help us to appreciate something of the richness of the Octave of Easter.
B. Another Latin name for this Sunday - 'Quasi Modo Sunday' was taken from the Introit of the Mass: 'Quasi modo geniti infantes...', a quotation from I Peter 2;2. It is still the Entrance Antiphon of our Mass today, although not always recited, 'Like newborn infants, you must long for pure spiritual milk, that in Him you may grow to salvation.'
Many will be familiar with the name, Quasimodo, either from reading Victor Hugo's Notre Dame de Paris, or more likely from a film adaptation of the novel.
The text tells us that 'on the morning of Quasimodo, in the year of the Lord 1467, curiosity excited a numerous group mainly of older women... On the wooden bed left for foundlings there was a misshapen hunchback infant. But Claude Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, brings him into the Cathedral, naming him for the day of his adoption.'
St Faustina Kowalska
An icon of Divine Mercy
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