By H. Boone Porter
The Sunday following Easter Day (April 17, this year) presents a liturgical challenge. Inevitably there is a sense of descent from the heights of the Sunday of the Resurrection. Yet, if we believe that Easter is to be observed not just on one Sunday but during a season spanning several Sundays, then this must be affirmed clearly and strongly at once — not a month later.
The new lectionary obligingly assists us in making this a more important day by extending the Gospel reading to the entire second half of the 20th chapter of St. John. Thus it includes all that was previously read, but goes on to include the appearance of the Risen Christ to St. Thomas. The new lectionary provides other suitable choices each year for the earlier readings, but this Gospel is always the same.
It is an extremely valuable passage. Let us examine it. Late Easter afternoon, Jesus appears to his disciples, shows himself alive, and blesses them with his peace (St. John 21:19-20). Then he commissions them as apostles (“persons who are sent”), breathes on them the Holy Spirit, and gives them power to forgive sins (verses 21-23). Reflecting on this, one will see the parallelism between the gifts of the Risen Christ and what we affirm in the third paragraphs of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
Then “eight days later” (verse 26)the scene is repeated. Eight days, in the idiom of that age, means what we call seven days. (They counted the first and last days of a span of time: thus Friday to Sunday were “three days.”) In other words, it is the first day of the next week, the following Sunday, the day we are talking about. Our Lord manifests himself to doubting Thomas, and says “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believer” (verses 26-29).
Thomas was, of course, where we are. We do not find it easy to believe. Some of us, sad to say, may even have missed church on Easter. We must take the word of others for the truth of the Resurrection. Yet the Lord will bless our faith, halting though it be. This episode restores to the Sunday after the Resurrection a distinctive commemoration of its own, a particular event on this very day. It also has a wider bearing. Here, St. John suggests, the followers of Jesus are learning where and when to meet him: in the assembly of his followers on the first day of the week, the day they soon came to call the Lord’s Day. This is what all the Sundays of Eastertide are about, and they in turn provide the pattern for all other Sundays of the year. On the Lord’s Day we assemble in God’s name, united to the Risen Christ and to one another, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
The restoration of “Thomas Sunday” fills in an important part of the total Easter narrative. Hitherto, we have only had this episode in the liturgical Gospel on the feast of St. Thomas shortly before Christmas (21 December), when the passage seems to many people strangely out of context and in any case received little attention. Getting this event back into its original setting also has a further advantage in terms of hymnody. Hymn 98, “That Easter Day with joy was bright,” is highly appropriate, and the great Hymn 99, “O sons and daughters,” has verses specially for this occasion. For the best effect, Hymn 99 should not be sung until after the Gospel; it may well serve as an offertory or final hymn. For other hymns, several of the familiar Easter ones are of course quite suitable. Depending on the sermon topic, a hymn relating to saints (such as 600), or apostles (such as 599), or heaven (such as 587) may be chosen.
Persons responsible for planning services must think of the entire season ahead. Do not spend all your money on extra flowers for Easter Day and the Sunday after it; you will need some extra flowers every Sunday for the following five weeks. Do not repeat all the basic Easter hymns this week: you will need some Easter hymns every Sunday for the next month. Let no preachers or teachers try to say everything possible about the resurrection at one sitting: there is a whole season for more careful discussion and thought. In terms of music, ceremonial, and church decoration, establish a pattern not as elaborate as Easter Day or Whitsunday, but clearly more festive than an ordinary Sunday and let this be carried on from Thomas Sunday through the Sunday after the Ascension. A workable plan, that can be adhered to successfully, will have greater value than a grandiose scheme which falls flat after two or three weeks. ”
In ancient times, Easter Season was clearly marked out by the practice of standing, rather than kneeling, at all prayers. Episcopalians will generally be willing to follow this ancient rule at least for the prayers in the first part of the service, remaining standing from the opening hymn until they sit down for the first Bible reading. This is in deed far more convenient than standing for the opening hymn, kneeling for the Collect for Purity, standing up again for the Gloria in excelsis, kneeling for the Collect for the Day, and then sitting down for the first Bible reading.
The Rev. Dr. H. Boone Porter was editor of The Living Church from 1977 to 1990. This article was first published in our April 3,1977 issue.