08 April 2013

'He softly springs the locks of death'—A Homily

This is the text of a homily I read in the school chapel today, the readings having been taken from the lectionary of the Book of Common Prayer for the Sunday after Easter. As can be seen, I took the lazy approach with this one, pretty much just using the relevant volumes of IVP’s Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture for all of my patristic commentary, and supplementing it with the lines from Merton and Donne, followed by the full text of the Merton poem (a favourite of mine) at the end. I do not apologise for this, however, since when I do these homilies in the way that comes most naturally to me, the process can take hours. Pulling all of the quotes from essentially one book probably cut the time in half. 

The readings are I John 5:4-12 and John 20:19-23

‘And when he had so said, he shewed unto them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad, when they saw the Lord.’ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

The Fathers of the Church have noted that when today’s Gospel begins, it is evening, and therefore, dark like the darkened mood of the disciples. St Peter Chrysologus, the 5th-c. bishop of Ravenna, writes: ‘It was evening more by grief than by time. It was evening for minds darkened by the somber cloud of grief and sadness because although the report of the resurrection had given the slight glimmer of twilight, nevertheless the Lord had not yet shone through with His light in all its brilliance.’ [1] Furthermore, the doors of the house were shut—for fear of the Jews, yes, but according to St Peter: ‘The extent of their terror and the disquiet caused by such an atrocity [as the Crucifixion] had simultaneously locked the house and the hearts of the disciples...’ [2] 

But thank God, there is no darkness, there is no door or barrier that Christ cannot pierce, for indeed, in the words of the Trappist monk and writer, Thomas Merton, He is the ‘intrepid visitor’ who ‘springs the locks of death’. [3] He penetrated the gates of Hell itself and emerged from the sealed tomb, defying the heavy stone put in place to keep out the living, but which could not contain the Risen One. 

So Christ enters and stands in the midst of them, having passed through the locked doors. This might be surprising to us, because it seems that in several of the Resurrection accounts He is first of all concerned to show that He is not a disembodied ghost. Thus, we find our Lord walking and eating and drinking, demonstrating that it is indeed His physical form that has risen. But clearly His physical form has changed. St Augustine takes the Lord’s resurrected body as an example of what we can expect of our own future resurrection bodies, which St Paul calls ‘spiritual bodies’ (I Cor. 15:44). [4] But of course, this is only a preview of the true heavenly body, for in the words of St Cyril of Alexandria, ‘Our eyes could not have endured the glory of His holy body, if He had chosen to reveal it to His disciples before He ascended to the Father.’

So, St Cyril writes, ‘By his unexpected entry through closed doors Christ proved once more that by nature He was God and also that He was none other than the one who had lived among them.’ [5] Furthermore, He demonstrates that He is certainly not an incorporeal spirit by showing them His hands and side, which St Augustine takes to be scars rather than fresh wounds, and which he says the disciples see ‘as the result of His power, not of some necessity’. [6] 

But there is a more profound, more positive reason that He shows His wounds, beyond merely proving that He is still Jesus in the flesh. St Gregory the Great has written some moving words on this question: 

But because the faith of those who beheld [His entrance into the room] wavered concerning the body they could see, He showed them at once His hands and His side, offering them the body that He brought in through the closed doors to touch. By this action He revealed two wonderful, and according to human reason quite contradictory things. He showed them that after His resurrection His body was both incorruptible and yet could be touched....By showing us that it is incorruptible, He would urge us on toward our reward, and by offering it as touchable He would dispose us toward faith. He manifested Himself as both incorruptible and touchable to show us that His body after His resurrection was of the same nature as ours but of a different sort of glory. [7] 

But there is more to this still, of which I am reminded by St Gregory’s choice of words when he says that Christ was ‘offering them’ His body. For He had already offered them His body at the Mystical Supper on the night He was betrayed, hadn’t He? And He had offered it supremely at the moment when He was lifted up on the precious & life-giving Cross. And He offers it continually when He calls us to partake of Holy Communion. Recall the words of today’s Epistle: 

This is He who came by water and blood—Jesus Christ; not by the water only but by the water and the blood. And the Spirit is the one who testifies, because the Spirit is the truth. For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (I John 5:4-12) 

The Fathers point out that the water and the blood—both of which pour out of His side when He is pierced by the spear—signify Christ’s Baptism and Crucifixion, and by extension our Baptism and partaking of His shed blood in Communion. In the words of the Venerable Bede: 

The Son of God came not by water only, in order to cleanse us from our sins, but also with the blood of His passion, by which He consecrates the sacrament of our baptism, giving His blood for us, redeeming us by His suffering and nourishing us with His sacraments so that we might be made fit for salvation. [8] 

In the breaking of bread, in the partaking of the sacrament, our eyes are opened and we recognise our Lord and are made glad when we see Him. In the words of St Leo the Great, ‘the traces of the nails and spear had been retained to heal the wounds of unbelieving hearts, so that not with wavering faith but with the most certain conviction they might comprehend that the nature that had been lain in the sepulcher was to sit on God the Father’s throne.’ [9] 

And what does our Lord do then? He says ‘Peace be unto you’ once more. As St Chrysostom says, ‘having put away all painful things, He tells of the victory of the cross, and this was the “peace”’. [10] Then, having blessed them in word, He blesses them in deed by breathing upon them. According to St Cyril of Jerusalem’s lectures to Catechumens: ‘This was the second time He breathed on human beings—His first breath having been stifled through willful sins.’ [11] He that is who breathed the Spirit of life into the face of Adam at his creation, making him a living soul, breathes the same Spirit into the faces of the disciples in that dark room, giving them a pledge of the Comforter whom He will send in awesome power on the day of Pentecost. He thaws out their frozen souls with the warmth of His breath, like Aslan breathing upon the statues in the courtyard of the White Witch, revivifying those who have been turned to stone. 

St Athanasius and St Cyril of Alexandria say too, that this testifies to Christ’s divinity, since in the latter’s words, ‘as the breath proceeds physically from the human mouth, so too does Christ, in a manner befitting God, pour forth the [Spirit] from the divine essence’. [12] And here we recall again today’s Epistle, when St John says that not only the water and the blood, but the Spirit testifies, ‘because the Spirit is truth’. Just as the two elements flow from His side on the Cross, so too does the Spirit ‘pour forth’ from Him when He voluntarily ‘gives it up’ on the Cross, quoting Psalm 31 when He says, ‘Into Thy hands I commend My Spirit’ (Luke 23:46). 

Thus, the events of today’s Gospel are all just watery ripples flowing out from the stone of Christ dropped into the pond of Death on that night in the Holy Sepulchre, when the uncreated light of the Holy Trinity dawned forth in the darkness of the cold grave, and Death lost its sting forever. For now, in John Donne’s words, ‘life, by this death abled, shall controule / Death, whom thy death slue’. [13] 

To wrap up this homily, I would like to look back once again to that Holy Night that saw a Dawn unlooked-for, by reading a poem by Thomas Merton, whom I’ve already quoted. This is called ‘The Dark Encounter’: 

O night of admiration, full of choirs,
O night of deepest praise,
And darkness full of triumph:
What secret and intrepid Visitor
Has come to crack our sepulcher?
He softly springs the locks of death
In the foretold encounter! 
O silence with no syllable for weapon,
Drunk with valor,
Whose speechless wonder solves the knots of flesh our captor:
Dower desires with your eloquence! 
O darkness full of warning and abandon,
(Disarming every enemy,
Slaying the meaning of the mind’s alarms)
Why do our steps still hesitate
Upon the threshold of incredible possession,
The sill of the tremendous rest,
Reading the riddle of His unexpected question? 
O silence full of exclamation!
It is the time of the attack.
Our eyes are wider than the word: “Aware.”
O darkness full of vision, vivid night,
Defying the frontier. 
O silence full of execution,
All intuition and desire lie destroyed
When Substance is our Conqueror.
O midnight full of victory,
And silence of the wonderful acclaim,
And darkness full of sweet delight. 
O night of admiration, full of choirs,
O night of deepest praise,
And darkness full of sweet delight!
What secret and intrepid Visitor
Has come to raise us from the dead?
He softly springs the locks of time, our sepulcher,
In the foretold encounter. 

[1] Joel C. Elowsky, ed., John 11-21, NT Vol. IVb of Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007), p. 355. 

[2] Ibid., p. 356. 

[3] Thomas Merton, ‘The Dark Encounter’ (here). 

[4] Elowsky, p. 356. 

[5] Ibid., p. 357. 

[6] Ibid., p. 356. 

[7] Ibid., p. 356. 

[8] Gerald Bray, ed., James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, Jude, NT Vol. XI in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2000), p. 223. 

[9] Elowsky, p. 358. 

[10] Ibid., p. 359. 

[11] Ibid., p. 361. 

[12] Ibid., p. 362. 

[13] John Donne, ‘Resurrection’, The Poems of John Donne, Vol. 1: The Text of the Poems with Appendixes, ed. Herbert J.C. Grierson (Oxford: Oxford U, 1966), p. 321. 

[14] See the link above, n. 3.

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