As I began writing this homily today (April 18) for the Second Sunday of Easter, it was snowing out, at least here in Cambridge MA. (Now, midday, it is only dreary.) It should be spring, warm, sunny, and given all that is going on, we could hope that at least nature would be consoling us with warm and beautiful weather. But here in New England, the season is always unpredictable, spring hinting its arrival in a brighter sun and delicate blossoms one day, but then sending us more snow on the next day and the text. To only slightly misread TS Eliot’s Wasteland, “April is the cruelest month.” Indeed.
A season that tricks us, disappoints or surprises us, sliding backward into winter, disappointing when it should be comforting, timing passing with a certain sharp edge: I mention this because we are now a week into Eastertide, the weeks when we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, his conquest of death; a time this year when for ourselves, the Church, and all our sisters and brothers of many faiths (and none), we seek hope and new life in the face of so much sickness and death around us. And so it should be. But alas, this Easter season is no simpler than the New England spring. It is not a simple, sure, straightforward coming back to life of nature, the dead of winter and sin giving way to a sure bright (pandemic-free) springtime of new life. If only.
John 20, including today’s Gospel (20.19-28), reminds us in vivid stories how the coming-to-life that is Easter is not a matter of simple progress:
1 Mary goes to the tomb, and finds it empty;
2-10 Mary summons Peter and the beloved apostle to the tomb, and they ascertain that it is indeed empty, and return home;
11-18 Mary, who loved Jesus most, stays weeping at the tomb. Jesus comes to her, calls her by name, so she knows him; and then he sends her to tell the apostles that he is ascending to his place with God;
19-23 Jesus appears to the apostles in the closed upper room, where they are hiding in fear. He comforts them, and breathes his spirit (Spirit) upon them;
24-28 But Thomas was not there, and upon his return he does not find the apostles’ testimony convincing. A week later, Jesus comes again; Thomas sees him and falls to his knees, and makes the great – greatest? – profession of faith: “My Lord and my God.”
But this is not merely entertainment or edification from a distance. Suddenly, at chapter's end, the evangelist speaks directly to us, to remind us that we are part of John 20's narrative, along with those we have been observing:
Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (20.29-31)
Put yourself into the story, be there amid the uncertainties, emptinesses, mis-recognitions, tears, and overwhelming gifts of new life: all of this is for you, that you may be fully alive. You are Mary, John, Peter, Thomas...
With a certain irony, the evangelist (or another, likeminded author) adds the 21st chapter. Once more, uncertainly creeps into the season of resurrection. Despite everything, the apostles have gone back to work, to their fishing. After a fruitless night on the lake, once again they fail to recognize Jesus, who is right there on the shore. When they finally see who it is, Jesus surprises them again. He cooks them breakfast:
When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. (21.9-13)
The Lord who washed their feet now serves them breakfast. The risen Christ will find us not only in an offical Upper Room, but just there, where we live and work. This is the last of the great “signs” in the Gospel according to John.
By the two chapters taken together, John is telling us, I think, that this season of resurrection is as unpredictable as any springtime in which the world comes back to life. Dying does not suddenly stop, life does not take over all at once and proceed by a smooth path to ever greater fullness of life. There are stops and starts, missed opportunities, mistaken identities, failures to listen to one another, failures to speak convincingly of Christ. Christ appears in expected and unexpected places; he comes and goes, he ascends, he cooks us breakfast. And then he goes missing again.
All this is a manner of consolation in this Easter-during-Pandemic, when emptiness – of the tomb, of our lives perhaps – may dominate, when cold snow falls and tries to smother even late-April flowers, when words of resurrection and as many Alleluias as you wish offer only cool if not cold comfort. Christ rises in our midst by stops and starts, that we may come to believe as best we can, that “through believing we may have life in his name.” Imperfection is the best starting point; indeed, imperfectly recognizing the risen Christ is the only starting point. Let us be Thomas, impetuous in his love, good-hearted in his doubts, eloquent in his faith:
Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (11.16)
Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God! (20.27)
In the end, of course, spring does eventually come.