By: Eric Tuttle, St. Mary’s seminarian
This is a strange time to be celebrating Easter. Usually Easter is a time for celebrating new life: spring comes, flowers bloom, the trees stretch out their new green leaves to soak up the longer and warmer sunny days. But this year, what has changed? If anything has changed, it’s that things seem to be getting worse by the day—more deaths, more visible inequalities, more precautions, more misinformation, more anxiety. And yet we’re supposed to be celebrating new life?
Our epistle reading today comes from Peter’s first letter, where he opens immediately by talking about the Easter hope that we are supposed to be celebrating this season: He celebrates the fact that God “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading.” These last three words are left dissonantly ringing in our ears against our experiences over the last month and a half: “imperishable,” “undefiled,” “unfading.” What world did Peter live in? Right now things seem to be the opposite of this: perishable, defiled, and quickly fading. If I’m going to be honest, any sort of future with these three words are really hard for me to believe right now, let alone give rise to the sort of hope that Peter wants us to have in light of the resurrection.
In our gospel reading today, we heard the story of “doubting” Thomas. We read this gospel story every year on the Sunday following Easter—as if to “catch” those skeptics who weren’t convinced about the resurrection during the first go around the previous week. We know the story: at first Thomas doesn’t believe the other disciples and demands to see Jesus with his pierced hands and wounded side before he will actually believe that Jesus is alive. Thomas is painted as a skeptic of the resurrection, and as a foil for us who though we have not seen still ought to believe.
But perhaps this year we find ourselves relating to Thomas in ways that we haven’t in previous years. This year, we come to this story in the midst of experiencing the collective trauma of COVID-19. Of course, this trauma is being experienced in different degrees by different people—our healthcare workers and those in essential services jobs are daily put on the front lines of this crisis. In addition, those who were already living with housing and food insecurity are experiencing this collective trauma in a far more intense way.
In the days preceding our gospel reading, the disciples had just experienced a collective trauma of their own in the betrayal and death of their beloved friend and teacher. And so, our gospel reading picks up with the disciples locked away in a house together, trying to process what had just happened over the last three days. Then all of a sudden, Jesus somehow appears through the locked door to stand in their midst and says “Peace be with you.” It’s strange how this sudden appearance of Jesus and his calming words don’t elicit an immediate response from the disciples—it’s almost as if they are still in too much shock to make sense of what is happening before them. How could this be Jesus? It seemed too good to be true—it was too out of sync with their more immediate experience of Jesus’s death for them to understand how Jesus could now be standing in their midst, alive. How could the trauma they had just experienced be suddenly and inexplicably reversed? It isn’t until Jesus shows them his wounded hands and side that the disciples finally rejoice, having recognized that the person standing in front of them is in fact their beloved friend and teacher whom they had just seen crucified. In other words, it wasn’t until Jesus appeared to the disciples on terms that they could understand—identifying his wounds with the wounds that they had also suffered—it wasn’t until this that they could finally understand what was happening.
Like the disciples, many of us are—quite literally—shut inside right now, trying to make sense of what is happening outside our doors. And then this last week, just as Jesus suddenly floated through their locked door to stand in the midst of them, Easter seemed to float in through our shut doors. But it has been difficult for this Easter season to elicit the same response that it has in previous years. It doesn’t feel the same—it’s almost unbelievable. Perhaps like the disciples, a celebration of new life in the midst of a pandemic feels too out of step with our current experience of the world. We have no anchor point in our day to day experience to make sense of something as abstract as resurrected life—or to connect back to our reading from Peter, we have no way of thinking about “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” when everything around us is death, injustice, and anxiety. We are still too much in shock from our current circumstances to fit something so good and so perfect into our sense of reality. It seems too good to be true. So how can it be true? Who are we to even dare to think that resurrection and new life are possible this year?
Perhaps we find ourselves relating to Thomas in ways that we haven’t in previous years: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” This year especially, we need to know that resurrection and new life are not held over and against our current experience as something that might be attainable in some far off future. We need to know that resurrection and new life are not distant promises that someone somewhere told us might be true. This year especially, we need to feel, see, taste, hear, and smell ways in which this new life is beginning to transform the trauma of these last several months. Unless we can place our hands into the wounded sides cause by Corona virus and find new life there; Unless we can place our fingers into the anxiety and insecurity ravaged by this pandemic and find signs of resurrection; Unless we can feel the ways that resurrection and new life are transforming our current experience of this collective trauma, we will not believe. Besides, how else could we believe? On what other terms could we begin making sense of resurrection and new life?
After Jesus appears to the disciples and shows them his pierced hands and wounded side, he breathes his spirit on them, and says “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” This is the gospel of John’s version of Pentecost—the birth and sending of the Church. Just as in the book of Genesis, where in order to create humanity God breathes life into them, here Jesus breathes on his disciples to create the Church. But the spirit that Jesus breathes on them is his Spirit—yes, the spirit of resurrection and new life, but it is also the spirit that still bears the fresh wounds of the crucifixion that are only just beginning to heal.
The church isn’t founded on a spirit of new life that is divorced from the wounds of whatever we are suffering. Instead, it is founded on a spirit identified by those wounds—a broken and wounded spirit. It is not just a spirit that floats through our doors and is totally incommensurate with our experiences of suffering. Instead, it is a spirit that stands among us and shows us the scars it has suffered.
This spirit is the spirit that animates the church. A spirit that makes room for suffering. One that does not demand perfection, or for our wounds to heal in private before we come together, but a spirit whose life is founded in the midst suffering and so a spirit that incorporates the suffering of each member into its very life. It is that spirit which has brought us together over Zoom each week—which brings us together in prayer services throughout the week, which brings us together through phone calls with friends and family, or even through a simple smile exchanged with a stranger on a walk—not divorced from our collective trauma, pretending that it doesn’t exist. But rather, we come together because of that collective trauma. It is because of our collective wounds that we need each other all the more in this time.
We bring our grief, our anxieties, our frustrations, our questions—we bring all these things whenever we come together. Only here in these interactions of empathy and understanding can we begin to believe that new life and resurrection are possible.
We would love for our wounds to be healed now. We would love to see all of this collective trauma instantly transformed, but this of course is a long process that will continue for years to come. For now, I think that the spirit of new life and resurrection that continues to animate the Church is one of empathy and compassion for one another. Henri Nouwen says that a true friend—or we could say here the spirit animating the church—is the one that has “chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness” Perhaps this is the new life that is taking place around us this Easter season, a spirit of greater empathy and greater understanding for one another—not in spite of our collective wounds, but precisely because of those wounds.
New life and resurrection are not possible because they erase the wounds that we carry—Jesus still bears his wounds even after his resurrection. New life is possible because, as the church, we come together through the same spirit that raised Jesus from the dead—the wounded spirit of new life and the broken spirit of resurrection.