Thomas needed to believe at the level of his own human experience
It would be easy to think that once the Easter eggs have been eaten, the chocolate wiped from our fingers and the cream eggs gone from our shops that Easter is over; in fact, that is not the case at all.
This weekend we celebrate the Second Sunday of Easter – and it will be followed by four more Sundays of Easter before we arrive at Pentecost. Why so long? Put simply, we need time to understand the wonder of what has happened at Easter. We have 40 days of Lent so it is more than fitting that we have 50 days of Easter.
Thomas, whom we meet in this Sunday’s Gospel, knows what it is to struggle to understand the resurrection. It is not enough for Thomas that his friends tell him they have seen the Lord, that he is risen. Thomas is clear: “Unless I 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.” (John 20:25)
I have a lot of empathy for Thomas. He needed to believe at the level of his own human experience and not simply at a head level. I have found myself in the same sort of position, where believing in the resurrection simply because others have told me about it was no longer enough. It is not that I needed to touch the wounds on Christ’s hands, but rather that I needed to touch into the woundedness within my own life.
My mum died when I was five years old. My brother died when he was 22 and I was 18. He had been ill for nearly two years with a brain tumour. Three years later, I decided to join a religious order. Before I could be accepted as a novice, I was sent for a psychological assessment – standard procedure. After many hours of conversation over two days the psychologist who was a Jesuit priest asked me, “Do you think you may be joining religious life to protect yourself from more loss, from someone else dying on you?” I disagreed and argued my case, clearly in a convincing enough way because his report indicated that I was a good candidate for religious life.
During my 30-day retreat I found myself praying through not only the passion of Jesus but also the passion and death of my brother, Paul. I had time to reflect on his death and how deep the loss was that I felt – and still feel.
Over the next two years, I had a powerful sense of Paul being returned to me as my big brother – my protector rather than as someone ill, thin and disabled both by cancer and invasive treatment. However, my new sense of Paul made me aware that there were many things about my mother’s death that I had not dealt with.
When I even attempted to touch into those early experiences of loss it felt as if a metal door slammed shut in my mind, not allowing me to go any further. I felt trapped within the experience of death and grief. The challenge for me was very stark – either the resurrection of Jesus mattered and had the power to release me from the bonds I found myself in or else faith was a waste of time and death has the final word.
So began a painful journey into my own experience of loss and grief. It was my own Good Friday and Holy Saturday. I remember being on retreat in the Cenacle in Killiney and praying with the Gospel of Mary of Magdala, where she finds the tomb empty and then encounters Jesus, risen, in the garden. I found that the one I encountered was my mother.
Facing the trauma of bereavement allowed me to confront death, allowed me to challenge the idea that death and loss should have the power to control and shape my life. It brought me liberation. The journey also brought me to the decision to leave religious life.
I have found that it is within family life, with my husband and our four children, that I am really challenged to live out my belief in the resurrection. Having lost my mum and my brother, I found it very difficult to allow someone to stand at the centre of my life, a fragile, mortal human being who could die and leave me bereft again. Love makes us all vulnerable. Family life asks us to accept that vulnerability because we believe that life is stronger than death, that love does not come to an end.
Like Thomas in the Gospel for this Sunday, it is good for all of us to stop and question what the resurrection means for us. It is more than a formula of words that we recite in the Creed. If the resurrection is a reality, then it has the power to shape how we live our lives, how we love and how we deal with the inevitability of death.
We are invited to believe in the resurrection at the gutsy level of our own human experience. To do that we need to reach our hand in to the wounds within our own lives, to those places of darkness, fear, pain and trauma and to ask ourselves, “What does resurrection mean in these dark places?” We all have the experience of suffering and limitation within our lives.
The dynamic of the Paschal Mystery is something we are familiar with and so it is vital that we stop and ask, if we have known the cross and the long Holy Saturday of waiting, then what is our experience of Easter and resurrection? Where have we glimpsed new life, new hope, liberation and transformation in the daily bits and pieces of our lives?
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are generally the days when the Churches are busiest. Yes, Jesus died for us but without the resurrection it would all have been such a waste. Without the resurrection Christianity would almost certainly never have come into being. There would perhaps be memories of a good man called Jesus who died a horribe death but that is all. The resurrection is not an afterthought. Like the nativity it is about God’s desire to be with us. It is about incarnation. Because of the resurrection we can have absolute confidence that God is with us always.
Not even death can separate us from the love of God. God is at the heart of our humanity and our humanity is at the heart of God. Let’s take time over these weeks to celebrate that.
Bairbre Cahill’s Living with Grief – Walking the Spiral will be published by Redemptorist Publications rpbooks.co.uk in August 2015.