THE SECOND SUNDAY OF EASTER – A – April 27, 2014

 

A reading from the Acts of the Apostles: 2:42-47

A reading from the first Letter of Peter 1:3-9

A reading from the holy Gospel according to John 20:19-31

 

Joshua sat in the church that was silent except for the sound of the water trickling from the raised bowl into the baptismal font below.  The last light of the setting sun set the stained-glass windows in the eastern clerestory shimmering with dapples of blue and red playing on the west wall.  The colors deepened as the rays flickered like candle flames in too strong a breeze.  The last of the worshipers from the evening mass had left moments before.  He wanted to cling to the moment, reluctant to step out of the mystery into the approaching night.

Father Thaddeus watched him for a few moments and felt irritation rise because he wanted to lock the church doors so he could get on with his evening.  Dinner waited.  He flicked the switches that extinguished the majority of the interior lights.  Surely, he thought, that should be a signal for the intruder on his time to recognize the indication that he should be on his way.  Father walked to the narthex and closed the doors noisily.  He turned the key in the locks to secure them.  Turning to start his way back up the aisle, he gazed over the font.  His jaws clenched as he noted that the man continued to sit stolidly in place.  He gave no evidence that he intended to respond to the audible signals that had been given so clearly.

The sound of each step the priest took on his way back toward the altar echoed through the nave.  When he reached the pew in which the man was sitting he stopped and turned toward him.  He could see that the young man’s gaze was fixed on the Easter Candle that stood adjacent to the ambo.  Tears glistened on his cheeks.  A twinge of conscience plucked at the priest and he sat a few feet away and watched.  The youth’s breathing seemed calm.  His arms rested in his lap.  Then suddenly he looked up at the pastor, his eyes wide and unblinking.

After an awkward pause, the priest asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?  Is everything okay?”

A trace of a smile appeared Joshua’s lips as he turned his attention back to the Candle and the Font.   “I was here a week ago tonight when you proclaimed Christ to be the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.  I saw you light the Candle from the Easter fire.  You carried the Candle into this dark church and proclaimed, Christ our Light!  I joined the others responding with Thanks be to God!  I think I meant it.  I was desperate and wanted to believe it.  I thrilled as one by one the candles the people held received light and flickered a moment before we passed the light on to a neighbor.  I could feel the darkness of the night yield as one by one the candles rejected it.

“We all sat in the candles’ light and listened to the story that began with the first separation of light and darkness.  We listened to Genesis and Exodus and the Prophet Isaiah.  The readings were long and continued in hypnotic cadence, like water cascading over rocks.  I struggled as with each reading I asked myself, Do I believe this?  I knew I wanted to, but my feelings were numb.  I didn’t feel anything.”

His tears continued to flow and fell from his chin to his shirtfront and onto his hands below.

“What’s your name?” the priest asked.

“Joshua.”

“Feeling and believing is not the same thing any more than seeing and believing is.”

Joshua’s hand wiped across his cheek to whisk tears away.

“I can see that you are upset.  Joshua, is it about this lack of feeling you have, or is there something more that is bothering you?”

The young man leaned back against the pew and sighed as he became aware of the scent of incense commingled with the aroma of the Easter lilies.  “I love the Easter Candle.  Several years ago I was told that the Candle is the great symbol of the Lord’s resurrected presence.  That’s what I heard when I was baptized.  What an awesome night that was.  The candle figured in every step along the course of the Vigil Service.  It was the first thing I saw when I came up from the water gasping.  Three times the water poured over me.”

The priest was not new to his vocation.  His experience led him to conclude that there must be something more that Joshua wanted to talk about.  His body language spoke of someone who had just heard of the death of a loved one.  His pastoral sense took over and he no longer felt compelled to urge Joshua on his way.  He was content to wait and listen.   Rather than stare at him, Thaddeus’s gaze focused on the Candle so simply decorated this year with the cross and five red spikes and a wax wrap colored to resemble marble.  Light of Christ.  Thanks be to God.

“I’m dying,” Joshua said in a flat voice.  “A few months from now I’ll find out for myself whether there is anything more than silence.  Right now I feel like darkness is suffocating me.  I hear the doctor’s words as he said how sorry he was to have to tell me that my headaches that I had been enduring are the result of an inoperable tumor in my brain.”  He turned toward Father Thaddeus to see how his news was accepted.  There was a pause, long, but shy of being awkward.  “Thank you for not saying something trite.  Thank you for not saying that you understand.  So many people have told me they understand my pain.”

Father Thaddeus felt his pulse accelerate as he searched for something to say.  He knew silence was not enough.  In stead, he moved closer to Joshua and put his hand on Joshua’s shoulder.  “I can pray,” he said.  “I can try to support you with my prayer.”

“I don’t have anyone near by, any family.  They are all in the Midwest.  I’m not married or even engaged.”  He paused a moment.  “But you have to die alone anyway, I guess.  I hate darkness.  I love light.”

The tears had stopped.  He looked at Father Thaddeus who tightened his grip on Joshua’s shoulder.  “I’m like Didymus, maybe, like Doubting Thomas.  If I could only see something that would convince me.  If I could touch the wounds, even feel his breath, I know I could believe then.”

“You do believe.  You’re here in this church.  You celebrated Eucharist tonight with this assembly of seekers.  With them you were transformed more completely into the Body of Christ.  The union in the Body is closer than that of a family.  The bond is love – Christ’s love for you.  Your love for Christ.  The Assembly’s love for one another.”  Father Thaddeus swallowed hard, feeling that he was struggling, grasping for words, floundering, praying that something he said would touch the aching heart.

“Am I loved?  Does Christ love me?  Why did God send this thing that is killing me?  Is this punishment for my sins?  Maybe if I believed more firmly this wouldn’t have happened to me.”

Father Thaddeus hesitated to speak, fearing that his voice would sound strangled, cracking with emotion.  “Hear me,” he said.  “God does not send you this terrible cancer.  But God does rush in to support you with love during your illness.  You walk with this cancer the way Jesus carried the Cross.  To all the world it looks like defeat.  Jesus had proclaimed God’s faithfulness and love.  Yet he experienced darkness.  He leapt into the void believing that God would catch him in an embrace and raise him up.

“That’s what God will do with you.  God loves you with the same love God has for Jesus.  In fact, God might not even be able to tell the two of you apart.”

“Do you mean that?  Is that true for me?  Can I believe that?”

“I’ll tell you more.  Hear me now.  If you want it, when the time comes, I’ll be with you.  You will feel my hand holding yours.  You will hear my voice, the voice of one who loves you.  I will remind you that God loves you and that Jesus waits to take you home.”

* * * *

Wisps of smoke clung to his casket before ascending as Father Thaddeus incensed Joshua’s body as the funeral concluded.  The pall draped over the casket reminded those gathered that at his Baptism Joshua was clothed in Christ.  The mourners stood in testimony to the truth that he had lived in Christ, died with Christ, and now lived in Christ forever.

The lighted Candle went before them as the assembled followed the casket down the aisle and out into the summer’s sun.

 

 

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