By Mac Stewart
I’ve managed to hold out so far. Though the pressure around me is great, and though it often results in baffled, amused, or even mildly annoyed friends, I’m sticking it out with my pre-iPhone cellular device. It takes a little longer to type text messages, and it means I have to print out directions before I go to new places, but on the whole I think it’s worth it to help reduce the time I’m staring at a screen every day.
One of the curious features that goes along with this incongruity between my phone and most others is that I’ll occasionally receive a text message which comes through on my phone with the words “Enhanced message not translated.” I’m always very intrigued to know what this enhanced message might be.
When I inquire of the sender, usually it’s nothing more than some contact information or other that they were trying to forward to me; so they kindly type out the number manually and send it back. But I was thinking the other day when I got one of these that this default error message on my phone is not a bad summary of the phenomenon that the Church has often called “Low Sunday.”
Low Sunday: the Sunday after Easter, when attendance numbers in the parish register usually take a sharp dive from the Sunday before. After the joyfully exuberant celebration of last Sunday — the music, the flowers, the pastel coats and ties, the white hats, the Easter eggs — it might seem like a bit of a downer that there’s not quite the same excitement eight days later. It might seem like that wondrously enhanced message — the shocking and earth-transforming news that Christ is risen — didn’t quite get translated for everyone who turned up last week.
Don’t misunderstand me: the message was loud and clear. By our liturgy we exulted in it; by our hymns we joyfully sang it; and our rector proclaimed it with clarity and power. It’s just that the message is so wondrously strange and strangely wonderful that even we who have come back for more a week later are maybe not quite sure we understood everything we heard in this Easter news. We’re not sure everything got translated.
Our gospel lesson suggests as much. Doubting Thomas, as he’s sometimes called, wasn’t around when Jesus first appeared to the Twelve. He didn’t get the enhanced message. He hears his fellow disciples telling him about it, and he’s not so sure he buys it. Now, Thomas’s character development has had an interesting trajectory in John’s gospel. We first hear from him as Jesus is explaining to his disciples what has happened to his friend Lazarus: Lazarus has died, Jesus says, and now I’m going down from Galilee to Judea to raise him up.
“But Lord,” some of his disciples respond, “there are people there who want to kill you.” Here Thomas chimes in for the first time: “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (John 11:16). Thomas is seemingly as bold and confident in the mission of his Master as Peter often affects to be.
The next we hear of Thomas is in the Upper Room during Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, when the Lord tells them that he is going ahead to prepare a place for them, and will soon guide them there himself along the way he has shown them. “Lord,” Thomas interjects, “We don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5).
Thomas is now not quite so sure he understands what the Lord is up to; where, in fact, he is trying to lead his disciples. It’s hard to imagine that Thomas fully internalized the answer Jesus then gave him — “I am the way,” Jesus said — because the next time we see Thomas is here, in our Gospel lesson today, when he says to the other disciples that for this enhanced message they’re trying to deliver to him, the message of Jesus’ resurrection, he needs a translation; he needs to see. Thomas has gone from confident confessor to hesitant skeptic, who needs a certain kind of confirmation: the confirmation that comes from bodily sight.
And we should notice right away that Jesus does not refuse to give this confirmation that Thomas wants. “Put your finger here, see my hands,” he says when he has finally appeared to Thomas; “put your hands here, feel my side. Be not faithless but believing,” he says. His question to Thomas sounds like a rebuke; but actually in the original grammar it could really just be a statement: “you believe now because you have seen.”
Jesus, of course, wanted to reveal himself visibly to his disciples, and he wanted them to go tell other people what they had seen. That’s why John wrote his Gospel; that’s why the apostles went to the ends of the earth with this message on their lips. But what Jesus says next tells us that the kind of sight that Thomas wanted — the visible confirmation of his ocular senses — was only the prelude to something much deeper.
Many people had seen the Lord, after all, with their bodily eyes, and yet had not received him as the full and final revelation of almighty God that he himself is. The Pharisees and scribes had talked with him, the people that followed him had seen his works — his healing and feeding and teaching and forgiving; his miracles and his majesty — and yet so many had not believed, and in the end all but a few turned their backs on him. Even after Jesus had risen, when he met with his disciples on the mountain in Galilee, Matthew tells us, “some doubted.” Bodily sight, then, was not the end game. What Jesus wanted from Thomas, what Jesus wants from us, is faith.
It’s customary in the modern world to think of faith as a lesser substitute for sight. Seeing is always better, we think — “seeing is believing,” they say; but if you can’t see it, then you just have to settle for belief. In the modern imagination, faith has a lower degree of certainty to it; if you’re not so sure about something, you say, “You know, I believe it’s the case that …”
But that’s not how the Bible thinks about this. When it comes to the mysteries that God has revealed to human beings, bodily sight is actually the weaker form of knowledge; it’s the precursor, the preparation for something deeper and fuller and richer. Seeing is believing, we say. But actually, in this case, believing is seeing; believing is what gives us true sight. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
Why is that? The translation that Thomas got of the enhanced message — the translation which took the form of bodily sight — is not the only way to receive this enhanced message. An illustration: if you’re trying to communicate with someone who only speaks Chinese, and you have never learned a word of that foreign language, then you have two options. You can find a translator, or you can learn Chinese. The first route may be easier, but it’s not full proof; the translator might not be very good, or he might be trying to mislead you for some reason. And in either case, how could you know? The second is much harder, and takes a lot longer; but it’s also far more reliable, and it results in a far greater knowledge and understanding of the person you’re trying to talk to, a far deeper relationship, a much fuller communion between the two of you. You don’t need a translator anymore, because you speak their very language.
It’s the same with faith and sight. Sight served as the translator for Thomas for something he didn’t understand. But sight was only an instrument, only a tool, only a ladder to climb up to something higher. Faith in the resurrection is actually learning the language of the resurrection. It may seem like our Christianity would be easier and more certain if the risen Christ would just show himself bodily to our waking eyes.
But that kind of sight would, in a certain sense, only be a kind of crutch. What is much harder, takes a lot longer, and yet is far more reliable, is faith. Faith means living our entire lives, it means breathing and speaking and thinking and acting in a way that would not make any sense unless Christ did in fact rise from the dead. It means staking our lives on this claim, literally. Faith is like a language, in the sense that it totally reorients our perception of reality, the filter through which we see and know and make decisions and act.
And faith, therefore, more than mere bodily sight, results in a far deeper communion with our Lord. Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, we’re told, the conviction of things not seen. We stand on this reality. We entrust ourselves to it. Christ is risen. That is not just an interesting fact about something that happened a long time ago, some trivia question that we might like to verify with our own eyes. It is the center and heartbeat and primal revelation of reality in all its fullness. It’s something that’s too close to us merely to see it with our own eyes. It’s a reality prior to the very existence of our eyes — closer to you than you are to yourself.
If you want truly to see him, you must believe in him. And to believe in him requires your whole life, your whole self. It requires you to do everything you do, to think everything you think, in light of this earth-shattering truth: that Christ the Lord is risen from the dead. He is the light of the world, the sunshine that illuminates every flower, every blade of grass, every hair of your head, and every dark corner of your soul.
It is he alone who will give you eyes to see the world as it truly is, to see your neighbor as the beloved creature that he or she is. It is he alone who will give you the confidence that you can make it through this dark and difficult world, he alone who will carry you like a mother tenderly carries her baby, her face always before his eyes, her sweet words ever echoing in his ears, with the enhanced language of love that requires no translation.
We will see him as he is, St. John tells us. That’s the reward of faith, in the end. But when we do, it will not be merely with our physical eyes. We will see him in the heavenly splendor where we will have become partakers of his very nature, where our lives are taken up into his own, where God will be all in all, he who is the first and the last, the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
The Rev. Mac Stewart is priest associate at All Saints Episcopal Church, Chevy Chase, Maryland.