Tuesday, April 13, 2010

St. Thomas Sunday

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

“Christ is Risen!”

Today is the Sunday of St. Thomas. As we know, in the evening of that glorious Day that Jesus arose from the dead, He appeared to His disciples in the locked room, but Thomas was not among them. Today, one week later, our Lord again appeared to His disciples and this time Thomas was present to see the risen Christ with his own eyes and to touch His holy wounds with trembling fingers.

We are not told why Thomas was absent on that first Pascha, but we can reasonably assume that he was devastated by the Lord’s death and felt that the dream of a Messianic kingdom was finished. Thomas was likely in the beginning stages of the spiritual disease known as despair and no longer saw any use in gathering with his former companions. Even when the others found Thomas and joyously reported the Lord’s resurrection, he still would not believe. People who suffer from despair often have a hard time listening to others. They are so wrapped up in their own sorrow and the cloud of false ideas that led them there, that even words of genuine encouragement from others sound hollow and fail to reach them. Despair can very easily lead to death of the soul, as any person who refuses to be consoled and take hope in God will descend into an abyss of spiritual darkness, where the demons hold sway over those that dwell there.

Fortunately, such a fate did not befall Thomas. Thomas disbelieved, but his disbelief was of a simple nature, not stubborn, not attached to other sins. It is what the Church has called a “beautiful unbelief” because rather than completely permeating the man and filling him with evil, it was more like a veil that once lifted revealed the deep and profound belief and spiritual insight underneath.

Listen to the words of one of the hymns from this weekend: “As the Disciples were being doubtful, the Savior, after eight days, came to where they were gathered and granted them peace. Then He cried unto Thomas, Come, O Apostle, and probe the two palms which were pierced by the nails. O the delicacy of the beautiful unbelief of Thomas, as coming with the heart of an unbeliever to knowledge, he called out with fear, My Lord and my God, Glory to Thee.”

“Beautiful” and “Unbelief” are two words we don’t normally associate with one another, but there may be no better way to describe what we see in St. Thomas than with this odd amalgam. It is true he did not believe the glorious report of the Lord’s resurrection. But it is likely that he very much wanted to believe, which is why he found himself once again with his companions. And when at last he saw the Lord with his own eyes, he not only believed, but showed a great depth of faith and spiritual understanding with that wonderful proclamation, “My Lord and my God!”

Seeing the beautiful unbelief of Thomas, we should note that there also exists in many hearts what must be called an ugly unbelief. This is an unbelief that facts have nothing to do with, and therefore that truth cannot correct. It is a willful disbelief, motivated by the desire to rebel against God and cast off His commandments and to live a life guided solely by the sinful passions.

Every year at Christmas and Easter, national magazines like Time and Newsweek publish their usual cover stories following a general theme of “Why no one should believe in Jesus,” and featuring the latest popular book or movie or what-have-you that challenges the traditional views of Jesus’ birth or resurrection, or regurgitates the same old and tired claims that the evil Christian Church simply made up stories of Jesus’ divinity to gain control of the mindless faithful. I’m quite sure the people who publish this nonsense could care less about spiritual matters. They continue to put these materials out every year because there is a market for religious doubt and because ugly unbelief sells. Many people want to hear that Christianity is a fraud so that they can continue to ignore that still, small voice inside of them that suggests otherwise. I have a certain sympathy for such poor souls, for I recognize that in even the best of us there can remain a trace of such unbelief and doubt, perhaps merely waiting for an opportunity to surface.

Maybe you have noticed that in this week following Pascha it has been much harder for you to be faithful in your prayers and spiritual devotion. It seems that when the structure and disciplines of Great Lent and Holy Week are removed and we are left to our own devices, we very quickly revert to a state of sloth and spiritual indifference. Could we call this our own ugly unbelief? It is depressing to see this in ourselves, for we always expect to make some sort of “progress” during lent, but apparently discover that we have not. This is such a common experience that I have given it a name, calling it the “Post-Pascha Blues”. But this does not automatically mean that we have not made progress. Perhaps it only means that our progress has taken a different form than we expected.

Many people have peculiar ideas about spirituality. Quite a few seem to think that spirituality should manifest itself as “inner peace” or the gaining of a profound wisdom that amazes the masses. Very seldom do people associate “humility” with spiritual progress. People seem to favor spiritual characteristics that are enviable, that make them stand out from the crowd and give them an air of great accomplishment. Few people envy the meek and humble man. Perhaps when we converted to Orthodoxy, we too had ideas of quickly becoming so spiritual that our dubious Evangelical friends would fall down and repent before our wonderfulness. What a shock we felt when, instead of quickly advancing to a lofty state of grace, we only discovered how pathetically weak and sinful we truly are!

Very likely we took this as a sign of failure, either of ourselves or of Orthodoxy. But was it a failure, or was it simply Orthodoxy doing what it is supposed to do in us? May I suggest that it is the latter? Before Orthodoxy can make us spiritual, it must first make us humble.

Understand that God does not grant any visible spirituality until we have first gained a degree of humility. Beloved, this shows how much God loves us. He knows that if we are still bound by pride, any spiritual gain we become aware of will immediately be trumpeted by us as our own marvelous accomplishment, and our wicked pride will only grow worse. As painful as it must be for God--and certainly is for us--He must convince us first of just how broken we are, in order that any virtue we might finally receive from His hand will be accepted as a gift of which we are entirely unworthy. Salvation is of faith, not of works, lest any man should boast. This does not mean that we do not work, but that the aim of the work we do is to gain faith in God over faith in ourselves (“Lest any man should boast”). Another word for faith in God over faith in ourselves is humility.

Thus, when we step away from the lenten disciplines and watch ourselves fall immediately on our faces, this is a great mercy from God. It shows us that even prayer and prostrations, fasting and almsgiving, and dragging ourselves through endless services to the point of exhaustion--all the things that we often imagine will make us spiritual--do not make us spiritual in and of themselves. If they could, then what need would we have of God? Instead what these things do is form in us a humility that we cannot gain by any other method. You don’t learn humility from a book. You learn it from the struggle, from the effort to come to God, only to time and again find yourself coming up short and empty. Only then when grace is given, when virtue is formed in us by God, do we realize that it cannot possibly be of ourselves or of our efforts, but of God alone. Thus holiness can begin to formed in us without human pride to puff us up and steal away the gifts of God.

And so beloved, do not be depressed if this week has not gone so well for you. Rejoice, knowing that you just might be a step closer to humility. Return to your prayers, return to the confessional, return to the services of the Church, and make it your goal in all these things to depend much more upon your Lord and your God. Then your lent will have been a great success and you will have made progress of a sort that you might not have expected, but which God knew you needed.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.