Low Sunday 2018

Caravaggio: The Incredulity of St Thomas, c.1601–1602
Caravaggio: The Incredulity of St Thomas, c.1601–1602

The Octave Day of Easter or Low Sunday* dawns a little cloudily here in Herefordshire. It echoes the world’s mood. The news is full of sudden and violent deaths — in Douma, Saskatchewan, Münster, the streets of London, to name but a few — yet Christ stands before us, showing us his wounds and promising us mercy, forgiveness and eternal life if we will but believe. If. We tend to look at ourselves, not at him, and forget that before we can admit our sin and neediness we must already have been forgiven, have experienced the miracle of grace that is faith. We may not have experienced it as we would have liked, with trumpets sounding and never a moment’s hesitation, but we have experienced it. Thomas’s hesitant, probing uncertainty, his fingers reaching into Christ’s wounded side, the confession of faith wrung finally from his lips, are an encouragement to us all. We are not asked for what we cannot give, for the faith of others, but for the faith we have been given: for that tiny mustard seed, that fragile little kernel, that small, wobbly, incomparably great gift we glimpse by fits and starts, as in the half-light of evening. One day we shall know it for what it is: Christ himself. Alleluia!

* There are many names for this day. It is ‘Low’ in comparison with the first Sunday of Easter, but it is still Easter Day, which we celebrate for a whole week. The name ‘Divine Mercy Sunday’ is a very recent addition.

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Low Sunday

I love our homely English name ‘Low Sunday’ for Dominica in Albis, the Octave Day of Easter, when those baptized at the Easter Vigil traditionally laid aside their white garments and put on an Agnus Dei made of wax blessed by the pope to remind them of their newborn innocence in Christ. Another name is Quasimodo Sunday, from the words we sing at the introit of the Mass, Quasi modo geniti infantes, rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite ut in eo crescatis in salutem si gustastis quoniam dulcis Dominus. Alleluia, Alleluia. (‘As newborn babes desire the rational milk without guile,’ etc, from 1 Peter 2.2). Low Sunday, however, is my favourite: it describes exactly that lowering of intensity we feel at the end of the Easter Octave. We have sung alleluia over and over again, rejoiced and given thanks: there seems nothing left to give. Joy, like grief, reaches a point where it almost numbs the senses.

Then we hear again the gospel of Thomas’s encounter with the Risen Christ in John 20. 19–31. I have often remarked that the Church uses John’s gospel at the peak moments of the Christian year. Surely this moment, when the forgiveness of sin is proclaimed and Thomas’s doubts are resolved, is a peak moment for all of us. It shows us not only what Christ accomplished through his Death and Resurrection but also why he suffered. His wounds are transfigured: love and compassion have made them beautiful, so that they are no longer blemishes but the source of grace and healing.

Christ’s Risen Body will always bear the wounds our sins have made upon them. That is not an easy thought. We are forgiven, we are redeemed, but at what cost! Surely we can tremble with Thomas at the enormity of the gulf that separates us from God, and the enormity of the love that spans the gap between. Low Sunday confronts us with the mercy and forgiveness of God less brutally than Good Friday, perhaps, but just as insistently.

The end of the Easter Octave is not the end of Easter. Low Sunday invites us to go deeper into the mystery at the heart of the Easter message. Just as the flame of the paschal candle continues to burn, so we too must continue to explore what it means to respond to our Lord’s invitation, ‘Doubt no longer but believe’.

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