Those of us privileged to live the monastic life are now exhausted. The liturgy of Holy Week and the Easter Octave, wonderful though it is, makes huge demands on both the individual and the community; and, of course, there are still weeks and weeks of paschal joy before us. Today, however, we come to the end of the Octave, the eight days we celebrate as one day, when time and eternity commingle, and there is a sense of completion, of fullness.
What does the Church put before us on this day? The gospel is taken from John 20.19-31. We are in the Upper Room on the day of the Resurrection, disconsolate, fearful, and suddenly Jesus is among us, commisioning us to forgive sin; but Thomas is absent and refuses to believe unless he can touch and see the reality of Christ’s wounds. Eight days later Jesus appears again and invites Thomas to place his fingers in his wounds and his hand in his side. Thomas speaks for all of us when he cries out, ‘My Lord and my God!’ In eight days we have moved from abject terror and doubt to a luminous and loving faith.
What brings about this great change? During the past week we have worked our way through the resurrection narratives. All of them are situated in the early morning,* even Peter’s encounter with the Risen Christ on the beach, but now we have reached evening. We are entering a new phase when the Church as community of believers begins to take on the mission of Christ. We have not yet reached Pentecost, but the Risen Christ even now breathes the Holy Spirit into his disciples and speaks of sin and forgiveness. That, it seems to me, is the Church’s mission: to extend through time the forgiveness of sin that Christ achieved through his Death and Resurrection. We can look back on two thousand years of history and question whether we have been very good at it, but that is surely unfair to the thousands upon thousands of good and holy people who have reflected our Lord’s love and mercy through the ages. It is also to make a fundamental mistake, to see forgiveness as something we do rather than something God does in and through us.
When evening comes, most of us would admit to being tired, weary even. Is it significant that the command to forgive comes when we are least able to rely on our own energy? When we have to rely on God? Many monastic communities find that the heaviest demands on their charity and patience are made during Holy Week and Easter, as though what we celebrate liturgically must be incarnated in our lives. As the Easter Octave comes to an end all of us, monastic or not, are called to continue the work God has begun in us. But we must remember that it is God’s work, not ours. We do not forgive, but we can allow God to forgive in and through us.
*Emmaus is a partial exception: Cleopas and the other disciple have walked with Jesus through the day but recognize him at supper.