The New Normal with the Risen Lord – Joseph P. Chinnici, OFM
Dear friends, a few here, many scattered, all of us bound together into one Body by our faith in the Risen Christ. Happy Easter! May the Lord give us peace.
A few years ago I found myself in a small town in central California, celebrating mass. As I vested, the pastor told me: “By the way, this is the children’s mass, so you need to direct the homily towards them.” The Gospel was the one we had today, and so I posed a few questions to get the ball rolling with little believers between 5 and 10 years old. “What happened,” I asked: “Jesus came,” they said with excitement. “Who was in the room? “ “All the disciples.” “Who was missing?” “Thomas,” they shouted in unison. And then one of them, stood up, looked around, found the classmate culprit, stuck out a finger towards him, and shouted: “What do you expect, Thomas is late for everything!” The classmate shrunk into the wall; silence gripped everyone. Then, one of his friends stood in the midst of the crowd and defended him, saying: “Once in a while, I’m late too.” And everyone became one.
The little story captures something about our Gospel that relates it to the very unique experience we all share.
The past two weeks we have heard the demand, “It is time to get back to normal”, accompanied by the very tentative, “it will have to be a new normal, one with masks, and temperature taking, tests, and controlled entrances.” Or, “All I want to do is for my family to eat, and to eat, I must work and be productive,” partnered unsatisfactorily with “ok, but this may not happen, and if it does, it must be done in phases; the virus may come back.” Or, “I want to touch my family and friends” accompanied by “it’s maybe ok to go back to school or to visit family, but I am unwilling to take that chance.” Living in a world that see-saws back and forth, most of us can stand to participate only some of the time; we would prefer instead, as our second reading puts it, an “imperishable, undefiled, and unfading” sanctuary full of peace; but right now it appears that there is no person or place or relationship on whom our quest for peace can fully hang its mantle. Or is there? Is our experience pointing us towards the God who raised Jesus from the dead?
Further, in some ways the disruption of the “normal” by a global disease has revealed a fertile ground in which the wood of the cross of our lives can blossom forth into an Easter Lily. We have learned through hard experience, even on a global scale, that human fault lines lay just beneath what we presuppose as “normal” –fault lines related to wealth alongside poverty, positional power alongside social impotence, those with medical access alongside those without medical access, those who always show up on time rejecting those who just cannot show up at all–our imagined and carefully managed social health hiding our very real but purposely curtained social outsiders. Yet in the midst of all of this, the experience of our own fragility has birthed something new and truly life-giving: A heart-felt sensitivity to our neighbor and the world’s suffering, the building of a food bank, an awareness of our need for each other, doctors and nurses practicing a sacrificial giving, an international gathering of virtual musicians bringing hope to all, our collective gratitude for those who feed us, clothe us, house us, protect us, triage us, love us, and bind us into one body, not only locally, but globally. This is fertile ground for our Easter faith. Could we be learning in our human way the new normal to which we Christians are called on mission in society? Here, right now, in this very rich human soil our second reading plants God’s Easter Lily: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who in his great mercy gave us new birth to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” (1 Pt. 1.3) This new birth we have mercifully received is our new normal.
In the Gospels the disciples and the apostles come to Easter faith only through the experience of doubt and fragility, and only over time. Traces of their difficult journey, and our’s, thread through all the resurrection stories. Let me give some examples: When, on the first day of the week, the two Marys, then Peter and John, find the tomb empty—Matthew says they “ran away from it, half-overjoyed, half fearful.” (28.8) Mark notes that they were “bewildered and trembling, so much so that they said nothing to anyone.” (16.8). When the women report what they heard, Luke says the “apostles” received the story as “nonsense, and refused to believe.” (Lk. 24.11). The disciples on the way to Emmaus, disappointed and confused, take a whole day’s journey in the shadowlands of faith. (Lk. 24.13-35). John in his Gospel describes the disciple whom Jesus loved as “seeing and believing,” but Peter, the leader who represents the Church, who in his weakness had denied his Master, simply stared at the leavings in a now empty tomb. (Jn. 20.6-8). It is no wonder that in the Gospel this morning, after a full day of pondering what this all meant, the disciples—presumably all of them except Thomas—locked the door and hid out of fear. They had seen and participated in the horrors of the previous weeks: the communal sufferings occasioned by a virus of betrayals, political jockeying, mob reactions, lamentations, and the great disillusion the many forms of death had caused in the hopes they had placed in their imagined messiah. All of these experiences left wounds in their personal and communal bodies, making it hard to believe in the Easter news.
Suddenly, Jesus enters; it is his choice. He enters not simply into the room where they are hiding, but he stands in their midst to show them that he too, their brother and their kinsman, has suffered these same wounds that inevitably accompany a human journey: “He showed them his hands and his side”; and now he has come back to be with them as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. [The answer to Thomas’ question in Jn. 14.5] God does not ask them to leave their humanity behind; God asks only that they allow enduring love to heal them. As the only begotten Son of their God [“I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God, and your God.” 20.17] , the many forms of human death in him have been engaged, and now conquered. The great truth comes to the disciples: The wounds they receive from their own journey, the fears that they have, the doubts and even the sins that plague them, no longer need be ties that trap them into the shredded pattern of their old normal. The first-born of the dead (1 Cor. 15.20) has taken their afflictions on himself and still invites them into life. In him death has no sting. (I Cor. 15.55) This is an entirely new normal in which living in him they have the strength to be one with every other suffering human being; it is a new normal that in him calls forth from them empathy, forgiveness, communion, the acceptance of human fragility. His Risen life has created a new normal in which a world that is wounded can find in his disciples hope and the promise of eternal life. “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (20.21)
Returning to the “old normal” has many good elements within its pattern: creativity, initiative, jobs, and sense of worthwhileness. Yet, there is more than the old normal that is necessary if we are to live a full life: the presence of God’s enduring love. We disciples of Christ are called to bring this Good News to the world, to inject into the old normal a pathway of reform so as to remedy its flaws, to bring to the world the reality and truth of the Risen Christ. This is where the image of Thomas is so important in a world that needs to “see and touch.”
In our Gospel, Thomas appears on the scene, a week later—a week that may stretch into months or years; he is always late, always an outsider, always one of whom they ask: Why isn’t he here on time? Why doesn’t he participate in the “normal” way?; always the lost child whose faith seems so tentative to the one who lives on his or her own terms. Jesus comes again, but now he comes in the midst of disciples whose wounds have within them a love that conquers death, wounds in the hands that Thomas can examine, a wound in the side into which he can put his hand. Glory dwells within fragility, fragility forming a bridge to humanity. The disciples live in the risen Christ, and Thomas can receive from them sacrificial love, living water, and forgiveness for always being late (Jn. 19.34, 4.14). A friend who has conquered death stands in their midst and says, “I know what it is to be wounded.” Christ is risen in the community of the Church “Blessed are they who have not seen and have believed.” (20.29) This is the new normal that we as believers are challenged to bring to the world. We need not do it perfectly, only at the end will everyone fully know: Christ is risen, Alleluia.
Joseph P. Chinnici, OFM
Franciscan School of Theology at the University of San Diego
Immaculate Conception Church, Old Town
April 19, 2020