2nd Sunday of Easter SUNDAY, 19 APRIL 2020.
For the last four Sundays, since the present lock-down began, I have linked what I have said in the homily to the difficult and stressful situation we all are currently living through. But for how long can I keep doing this? Well, for a while yet, I think. According to the documents of the Church, the purpose of the homily is to open up the Word and apply it to people’s lives.
In normal circumstances, when all kinds of things are happening in the world, that can mean almost anything. But at this time, when one thing above all others is dominating our lives, it would be ridiculous to come together in either virtual or real time and give a homily which made no reference to something so all-encompassing. And so the question I invite you to reflect on today is a simple one. What, if anything, does the story of Thomas have to say to us about what is currently happening?
Well, as with most people in the Gospel stories, we know very little about Thomas. But there are two incidents in John’s Gospel which give us a clue about the kind of man he was. The first is in chapter eleven when, faced with the risky prospect of going up with Jesus to Jerusalem, where danger awaits, Thomas rallies the others with the words, ‘let’s go up and die with him’. And the second is the incident we heard about today. It’s been suggested that the reason Thomas was not present that evening, was that, among all those huddled together in that room for fear of the Jews, he was the only one who had the courage to go out. Like us self-isolating today, they would have needed food and supplies, and Thomas, it would appear, was the one willing to go to the equivalent of Asda or Morrison’s and get it. In other words he was a man of courage, a courage which enabled him to do something of great importance. And that was to ask questions. Asking questions, looking for answers, challenging traditional thinking, not just accepting what we have been told, living with doubt and uncertainty are all key factors in the process of coming to deeper and more personal faith. It’s not honest doubts, but fear of questions, fear of what is new or unfamiliar, that is the real enemy of personal faith. And so, today, as we hear about ‘doubting Thomas’, I invite you to think a bit more about some very basic questions the current crisis is inviting us to ask. What kind of God do we believe in? What do we expect that God to do about what’s happening? What are we praying for at this time?
I spoke to someone recently, a good woman, who couldn’t understand why God was not taking the virus away. And maybe some of you have asked that same question. And no doubt many also asked it during the so-called Black Death, the most fatal pandemic in human history, a plague which killed somewhere between 100 and 200 million people in Europe, Asia and North Africa in the fourteenth century. But God did not stop the plague then, and he won’t stop it now. But could he stop it if he wanted to? And if he could stop it and does not want to, what kind of God is he?And what does it mean to pray to him? What exactly are we praying for at this time? I spoke to another person, again a very good woman, who prays lots of novenas. Butwhy do people do this? What do we expect will happen? If the God who underpins this kind of thing could stop the virus but chooses not to, can we change his mind by saying certain prayers a certain number of times over nine days? Is he a God who can be coaxed or manipulated into doing what we want him to do?And if he needs to be coaxed into helping us – back to what we said a moment ago - what kind of God is he?
There are nine question marks in that last paragraph. They are the standard questions people ask and our inability to provide convincing answers to them is one of the main causes of loss of faith in the world today. But like Thomas’s questioning of the Resurrection they can lead to deeper faith when we understand that they are, in fact, the wrong questions The reasons we can’t answer them is because they are about a god who does not exist. The real God is not one who thinks as we think. He does not have to be persuaded to help us. We can’t control him by using certain words. To know him we have to let go of infantile ways of thinking, images and ideas we picked up as children, and then open up our minds and hearts and invite into the deepest part of ourselves the only God who does exist. And the current situation with all its uncertainties, fears and anxieties is offering us an opportunity to do just that. Prayer is not about getting God to do what we want. It’s about opening ourselves up to what God is doing in us. All we have to do is listen and take seriously our own experience; not to be afraid of it; not judge it: not to worry that we might be losing our faith; having the courage and honesty Thomas had to bring our whole selves into the presence of God, and wait for him.
But even now the 1950's Catholic is still alive in me and wanders off at times into a fantasy world where God will somehow make things better. Such delusions never entirely go away. Our past is always with us. But at a deeper level something else is happening, as without me doing anything, the words of a prayer which I have prayed for the last thirty years and which I offered you two weeks ago, have been becoming more real.They are stirring in me an acceptance of what is happening and a letting go of my own ideas and plans for the future. And with this there comes a growing sense of inner freedom. This inner freedom comes and goes, but it’s deepening. Ignatius describes his own longing for it in these words:
receive all my liberty,
my memory, my understanding, my entire will.
All I have and possess.
You have given all to me
To you Lord I return it.
All is yours;
Do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace.
That’s enough for me
So make his words your own during these sometimes difficult days, asking God for the grace we need to even begin to mean them.