Absent for Easter

Posted by Margaret Manning on April 18, 2017

A long-time friend of my husband’s paid us a visit over the Easter weekend. Growing up together, life had taken them both in very different directions. I enjoyed listening to their reminiscing about childhood events they had shared together. When the conversation turned to Easter Sunday festivities, a solo-hiking trip was planned even as his family would be elsewhere. How strange, it seemed to me for him to be absent from them on Easter. But as he talked I realized that Easter Sunday was like any other Sunday. There was no recognition of the day or of its significance for Christians around the world.

The conversation left me feeling sad that such a significant day is for most a day of chocolates and eggs, if it is even that at all. There have been Easter Sundays that have come and gone without much notice in my own life as well. Even though I am present in body and mind, my heart is often disengaged from the significance of this day. Thankfully, the Christian celebration of the season of Eastertide invites all to inquire—whether present or absent on Easter Sunday— into how the continuing presence of the risen Lord manifests himself in our day-to-day reality.

Guercino, Doubting Thomas, XVII cent.

The disciple Thomas also missed Easter Sunday, in a way. Remembered in Christian tradition as “doubting Thomas,” he was not physically present when Jesus first appeared to his disciples after his resurrection. Locked up in a room because of their fear of the Jewish authorities, the ten remaining disciples may have been huddled together puzzling over Mary Magdalene’s pronouncement that she had seen Jesus, alive and well, after her visit to his tomb. John’s Gospel does not tell his readers why Thomas is not present with the other disciples; he simply records that on “the first day of the week… Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, ‘Peace be with you….’ But Thomas, one of the twelve, called Didymus, was not with them when Jesus came.” (1)

When Thomas did show up, the other disciples proclaimed their good news to him. They too, like Mary before them, had seen the risen Jesus. He was alive and he had come to them. Thomas is not convinced and tells them so. “Unless I see in his hands the imprint of the nails, and put my finger into the place of the nails, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” Thomas could have made this declaration out of a place of despair rather than disbelief. Unfortunately, for him, the history of biblical interpretation and teaching has sided with the latter. Thomas is “doubting Thomas” who refused to believe; all because he wasn’t there on that first Easter appearance of Jesus.

But is this really the case? Earlier in John’s gospel, it is Thomas who boldly pledges to go with Jesus to Bethany so “that we might die with him.”(2) After touching the scars on Jesus’s hands and side he declares him to be both “My Lord and My God.” Thomas is the only disciple after Peter to publicly announce Jesus’s identity as both human and divine. Yes, but what about the fact that Jesus seems to chide him when he says: “Because you have seen me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed.” Immediately, my mind wants to single him out from the others as the unbeliever—and yet, we are told in both Mark and Luke’s Gospels that the disciples didn’t believe the testimony of the women to whom Jesus had first appeared.(3) They also needed to see Jesus in order to believe. Finally, when Jesus comes again to see the disciples he appeals to Thomas directly and encourages him to touch him, just as Thomas has asked to do. “Reach here and see my hands; reach here your hand and put it into my side.” Believe, Jesus says with this gesture. It is me.

Thomas is not the only one who was absent on Easter Sunday, of course. There are myriad others who miss it, both literally and spiritually. The risen Jesus obscured from view because of doubt and despair, unanswered prayers and echoing persistent pleas, or the slow grinding down of expectations and dreams. The evidence seems too scant, implausible, or simply does not matter enough even if the evidence was overwhelming. Neither the gospel writer nor Jesus seems concerned about the whys of incredulity. Jesus simply comes near and gives Thomas exactly what he needed: his wounded hands and side.

And this is good news. If Easter Sunday is only about an historical event of long ago, which only comes but once a year, then there is not much hope for me, or for Thomas, or for anyone who is seeking the risen Jesus. If Jesus is truly raised, then the entirety of reality changes as a result of his on-going presence. For Thomas, the invitation by Jesus to touch him and to feel his wounds compelled him all the way to India—where church historians believe he brought the gospel and founded the Christian church that exists there to this day.

For all who feel disconnected from Easter Sunday in one way or another, Jesus extends the invitation to reach out, touch and see him. And even if we stand confused at the mystery of the resurrection, or wandering in despair on the road to Emmaus, there is hope that Jesus will find us. There may be seasons characterized more by absence or lack, than presence. And yet, as the story of Thomas demonstrates, despair and doubt can be a part of a path that leads to Jesus. As one writer notes, “Thomas may have doubted but he also must have hoped against all painful hope because he stuck around…. Thomas who discovers God in the broken body of God’s own risen son. Believing Thomas, who discovers something of who God is, in the presence of Jesus’s wounds.”(4) May we all become like believing Thomas and declare in this Eastertide: My Lord and My God.

 

Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.

 

(1) See John 20:18-29.
(2) John 11:16.
(3) Luke 24:10-11; Mark 16:11.
(4) Newton, Rev. Alissabeth. “Faithful Thomas,” Sermon, St. Paul’s Church, Seattle, April 27, 2014. Accessed online April 25, 2016.