Blessed Are Those Who Have Not Seen And Yet Believe

by Deacon Peter Defonce

Delivered on Thomas Sunday at St. Mary Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA
Sunday, April 18, 2004

The Paschal services of the Orthodox Church beautifully, majestically, and triumphantly proclaim the most fundamental teaching of our Faith, which is at the heart of the Gospel that St. Paul and the other apostles preached throughout the ancient world. Whereas there is no clear and precise moment in our services at which the Resurrection of Christ “occurs,” several key events bridge for us the gap between the desolation, sadness, and loss of Good Friday, and the joyous and light-bearing proclamation of the Lord’s victory over death, in the early hours before dawn on Sunday.

After the entirety of Great Lent and Holy Week, we find ourselves on the edge of our seats on Saturday morning. Immediately following the reading from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, the altar curtain is withdrawn, the Royal Doors are unlocked and thrown open, and the priest rushes out bearing baskets of bay leaves to be scattered throughout the entire church, a sign of victory in the ancient world. The choir sings Psalm 82: “Arise, O God, and judge the earth, for to Thee belong all the nations!” The Gospel reading is the last chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel, and we are left at this point somewhat like Peter and John when they entered the tomb and saw that it was empty… something wonderful has surely happened, but the story is not yet complete!

Later on that night, we gather together again. Singing the funeral Canon for the Lord one last time, we await His return with great expectation. As Mary Magdalene stood weeping at the door of the tomb and then found herself in the presence of angels, so we take our candles and process outside the church, chanting a beautiful but solemn melody; the angels in Heaven announce the Lord’s Resurrection, and we ask Christ to give us the purity of heart to glorify Him. Finally, we hear the joyous and great proclamation for the first time, in its fullness: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!”

This foundational hymn, the “Paschal creed” of the Orthodox Church, occurs not less than 67 times during the course of Paschal Matins and Liturgy, and often is sung many more times than that. It encapsulates the Gospel message that the Lord Jesus Christ gave to His disciples to take to the ends of the world, for which most of them suffered and eventually died—including Thomas. The realization that Jesus truly is the Messiah and Savior, that God granted Him victory over death by raising Him from the grave, and that this new life in Jesus may be granted to all who call upon His Name, separated forever the path of the early Christians, from those of the Jews and the Gentiles.

When Jesus made plans to go to Judea to raise Lazarus from the dead, Thomas said: “Let us also go, that we may die with Him” (John 11:16), fearing that Jesus would be stoned. It should thus come as no surprise that Jesus chose to test Thomas’ faith in a special way, by permitting the other eleven disciples to see Him physically when Thomas was absent. Thomas’ earlier doubt was made evident to all when he refused to accept their verbal testimony concerning Christ’s resurrection, but mercifully Jesus chose to upbraid him gently. As Thomas had the witness of those who saw the Resurrected Christ with their own eyes, we have the proclamation of these beautiful liturgical services. But sadly, like Thomas, our lives, words, and deeds often betray a similar doubt and misunderstanding… how many people will look at us and see the radiance of Christ’s resurrection? Let us go forth from here shining with the eternal light of the Empty Tomb, bringing to those around us the glad tidings of great joy, that “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!!!”