On Acts 5:12-20 and John 20:19-31
The Harrowing of Hell, a northern Russian icon
tentatively dated to late 13th century
All of Bright Week, the doors of the icon screen stood open. The way to heaven, to resurrected everlasting life is opened by Christ’s glorious triumph over death. There, in the icon of the resurrection – his harrowing of hades – he stands on the broken gates of death, now in the form of a cross. The tomb had been sealed, but our Lord, the Life of all, breaks open this seal and he rises from the grave. And so the doors are opened.
But today we close the doors of the icon screen. Beginning at Ninth Hour yesterday, the doors were closed, having stood open all week. And after this homily, I will close the royal doors again. Bright Week is ended. And we return to some of our more ordinary customs.
There is a kind of sadness to this moment of closing the doors. The gates of heaven have been open all week and now it strangely seems as though they are no longer.
Fr. Alexander Elchaninov writes,
“I am always grieved by the closing of the sanctuary gates on the Saturday of St. Thomas and in general by the ending of bright week. They still sing 'Christ is Risen' but everything becomes more difficult, as if the gates of the kingdom of heaven had really closed, those gates which have only just been opened in answer to our prayer and fasting. People plunge themselves once more with a sort of ravenousness into futile, worldly pursuits, and the churches become empty."
And yet, closed doors do not stop our Lord from entering. And hearts closed by faithlessness do not stop the Lord from entering.
Soon after we closed the doors yesterday, we sang Vespers. The first sticheron at Vespers begins, “When the doors were closed and the disciples were gathered together, you suddenly appeared in their midst, O Jesus our Almighty God.” Again and again, throughout this day’s services, the hymns are filled with this image of closed doors. Again and again, we are reminded that Christ enters regardless.
It’s almost as if we close the doors just to demonstrate that this closing has no power to keep out the Lord. Shut the door and lock it, as the disciples did in the Upper Room. Soon the Lord will stand among us regardless, saying “Peace be with you.” Thomas tries to lock him out of his heart and mind, saying, “I will not believe.” Soon the Lord stands before him regardless, saying “Peace be with you,” showing Thomas his living body marked by the nails and the spear, and saying “do not be faithless, but believing.” And Thomas does believe. The doors were closed, but not to the Lord.
Русский: Уверение Фомы.
Дионисий и мастерская.
Икона из церкви Св. Троицы Павлова Обнорского монастыря.
1500 г. (ГРМ)
Where ever the apostles go, the Lord opens doors for them. Today, from Acts, we hear that the Sadducees, filled with jealousy, rise up and arrest “the apostles and put them in a common prison.” The apostles are again behind locked doors, but this time the doors are locked from the outside – a different kind of lock for the Lord to pick. So, “at night an angel of the Lord open[s] the prison doors and [brings] them out.” The next day, the officers report, “We found the prison securely locked and the sentries standing at the doors, but when we opened it we found no one inside” (Acts 5:23). There is no lock of metal or of mind that can keep out the Lord from where he wills to go.
And it is greatly encouraging to know that, as he repeatedly demonstrates, he wills to be with us – and for us to be with him – even after we have been faithless. Jesus loves Thomas and wants to be with him even though Thomas has been faithless. Jesus, our Christ and our God, stoops to prove himself to Thomas! He lowers himself to satisfy the doubting mind of a mere human, as if this human’s opinion of things counts for something. Thomas matters to Jesus this much.
To understand how Jesus regards Thomas and all of us who doubt or fall away or make mistakes or sin in countless ways, I think it may be helpful to consider the relationship of adults to children. After he washes their feet, Jesus says to his disciples, “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (John 13:13). He is our teacher and our Lord. If we love him at all, we are his pupils, his students, his disciples. To our Lord, we are like children. We are like the little ones about whom he says, “Let the little children come to me” (Matt 19:14).
If you think about it, it is easy to see that, next to the eternal God, we really are like little children – no different at all than children. Just consider the age ratio. If someone 25 years younger than me – or 70 years younger than some – seems like child to us, imagine how we must seem to God, who is Ancient of Days (Daniel 7). We surely are merely children.
Many of us – perhaps like Thomas – often take ourselves too seriously, as if it really mattered above all else how we see things – as if our perceptions were really what it was all about. As if our opinions were great and weighty and really counted for something. We might do well to occasionally ask ourselves – where we were when God laid the foundations of the earth (Job 38:4). We are new to this world, even compared to our ancestors, let alone to God. We are all like children.
It might help, then, to think about how we adults regard children, with all their struggles and their questions, because this will be similar, I think, to how Jesus regards Thomas, to how God regards us.
Well, first of all, many of the problems of childhood seem small to us. Tying my shoes is not really a problem for me anymore (except during liturgies, it seems). Nor am I preoccupied with endless questions about dinosaurs. But I also understand where they’re coming from. I’ve been there too. And I try to look upon them not with contempt, but with compassion. I try to treat them with patience and kindness and love. I have seen enormous patience with children from the teachers and parents among us. In this, they are icons of the Lord, our Teacher.
So how does Jesus regard Thomas? How does he regard this man who doubts him? With contempt? Does he say to Thomas, as is his perfect right, “who are you to doubt me?” No. Not with contempt, but with compassion. Yes, he does rightfully reproach Thomas to a degree, but not to the point of rejection.
I believe that Jesus loves us all as he loves Thomas and that he will give every sinner and every doubter an opportunity to stand before him and say, as Thomas does, “My Lord and my God.” Even now we have this opportunity.
Those who believe without seeing are blessed. But those who doubt are not abandoned outright. Nor are those of us who turn away from God in countless other ways. Nor are those who worshiped with us on Pascha and are not here on Thomas Sunday. The Lord does not extinguish a dying ember. Rather, he does much to enkindle in us again the flame of faithfulness. Though the doors of Thomas’ heart were shut by his faithlessness, Jesus comes and stands with him anyway.
This is how it works now: The doors close now, but they also open again. We may be paused now a little in our dance in and out of the holy place, but we are not halted. The doors open and they close again. They close and they open again.
Sin and doubt threaten to lock us in a prison of despair. But the Lord opens these prison doors, as his angel opened the prison doors for the apostles (Acts 5:19). No doors – not even those of death – can keep out the Lord from where he wills to go.
Christ is risen!