A reflection for Low Sunday 2020

John 20: 24-29

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 19th April 2020 at 9.00 AM

For Christians who live in the age of the resurrection – that is, our own age – belief is an activity of the heart and the mind. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe”, Jesus says in Sunday’s Gospel, in words which are particularly moving because they include us; those who in subsequent ages have risked the journey of faith. The various post-resurrection accounts given in the Gospels, and referred to at the beginning of the Acts of the Apostles, highlight that even for the first Christians discerning the Risen Jesus was not always straightforward. Mary Magdalene supposes Christ to be the gardener, the disciples on the road to Emmaus spend time talking to this mysterious figure before their eyes were opened and they knew him, the apostle St Thomas wants to touch the wounds which the others have seen before he is willing to believe.

Two pictures. The first in our south transept, which until the 18th century formed part of the Chapel of St Blaise. An enormous late-thirteenth century figure of the Risen Christ with a steely gaze and clutching a cross in his left hand, grasps a much smaller St Thomas by his left wrist, and tugs him towards his open side. Simultaneously, Thomas raises his right hand in a gesture of abandonment and worship, presumably about to utter those words, “My Lord and my God!” Christ is strong, dominant, in command. The grandeur and majesty of the Risen Christ is what really strikes us here. Thomas is on his knees, offering himself to the Risen Lord. Christ is the principal actor in this scene, active and energetic, almost overwhelming, dragging Thomas towards him.  

The second picture is housed in the Sansoucci Gallery in Potsdam. It’s by Caravaggio, and was made in 1602. The figures of Christ, Thomas and two others are all standing. The background is swamped in darkness, and the light seems to shine from Christ’s robe. St Thomas is bending to study the wound in Christ’s side. The Lord’s hand still guides him, but here Thomas is much more focussed – this is a forensic examination with a certain wariness in his heavily furrowed brow. His finger is almost lance-like, getting right inside the wound. As he does this his left hand grabs his own side, as if he too feels a pain in his chest. This is a much more complex image. Forensic examination, combined with a hint of participation in Christ’s suffering.

During the Sundays after Easter, we are presented with the opportunity to engage with our own response to the Easter mystery which is right at the centre of our Faith. One of these pictures – the one in our south transept – was made well before the renaissance; both art and philosophy still rooted in the insights and traditions of the first millennium. And I’m not being dismissive in saying that. As the history of the 20th and 21st centuries already shows there is no such thing as crude linear progress throughout time. But theologically speaking, this image is about the majesty of the Risen Christ in whom rests the initiative, the “first-move” if you like. No wonder Thomas offers his assent, “My Lord and my God.” The other picture – the Caravaggio – was made in the midst of the renaissance. A re-discovery of that first millennium, but with new tools beginning to emerge. Realism, anatomy, medical science, critical thinking. The Rome of 1602 was also, of course, saturated with the highly creative, rich and combative thinking of the counter-reformation: so Caravaggio’s painting reveals a thoroughly human Christ, Thomas applying scrutiny as he touches Christ’s real body, but still in an attitude of amazement and wonder. He is surely but seconds-away from falling to his knees in adoration.

These images express different ways in which we might “come to believe” more deeply. In fact, each approach needs the other. For much of the late 19th and early-mid 20th century, a classical western theological approach was more forensic – metaphorically applying a microscope to the Gospel accounts, fascinated by whatever new light might be thrown on our faith by discoveries in archaeology, of new texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls found at Qu’mran. For many of us it’s helpful and important to use our own critical resources to engage with these foundational truths of our faith. Text, context, history, evidence, even.

When I was in a previous job, one of the most memorable confirmation preparations I had was with a doctoral student working in plant sciences. He’d been baptised as a child, and was just rediscovering the Church. After several hours of wrestling between his own highly trained scientific brain and his heart, he concluded for himself that there different kinds of knowledge and different ways of knowing. Evidence doesn’t always add up, and it’s certainly not always sufficient. You can’t see the wind. You can’t even see love. You can see what love does, and what the wind does, but that’s about it. So, in these confirmation conversations, we looked at the Gospels, talked about context and interpretation, discussed how they’d been received and celebrated in the communities for which they were intended in subsequent centuries; applied careful scrutiny to various teachings and traditions, and then stepped back. What happened if we did this work on our knees? What changed if we gave equal weight to prayer? He discovered what countless others have known before and since – that even when the heart and the head are working well together harmoniously, speech eventually stops. Interrogations cease. Not because they don’t matter, but because words and concepts just cannot bear the weight of the deep truth they are beginning to touch.

And I use the word touch intentionally. In our 13th Century image, Christ grasps Thomas by the wrist. He’s not letting him go. “Unless I put my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Careful, Thomas, what you wish for! Thomas discovers that he is not the principal actor in his own interrogation drama. Whenever we think we might examine the resurrection, apply various lenses to those metaphorical microscopes, there it is. A world-remaking reality of such dazzling truth, once we’ve glimpsed it, it changes us, and invites our loving assent, our “yes” in response to God’s incredible “Yes” to the world and its recreation in Christ. We have to begin the journey – participate in it – before its truth unfolds. How do we make sense of that? In Caravaggio’s image, Thomas’s finger is right inside Jesus’s torso. He’s not just peering in. These wounds are going to demand more than that. With his other hand, Thomas clasps his own side, as if he too might be feeling a pain, a sharing in Christ’s own passion. We will learn more about the resurrection as we live truthfully, humanly, lovingly, in the light and promise of Christ’s victory day by day. As its light touches every part of our lives.

The Anima Christi, written slightly after our wall painting but certainly very well known by Caravaggio’s time, contains the lineDeep in thy wounds hide me.” The resurrection is an invitation into the body of Christ, with ramifications for prayer and love, for human fragility and the experience of pain, for living and for dying. We will know the truth of the resurrection and the truth of this body by participating in it. You’ll know it by loving it, and by living it. “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have come to believe.”