This Sunday’s readings give us a glimpse of how the early Church was transformed by the encounter with the Risen Lord, offering guidance for how we ought to react now that we too have seen the glory of the Resurrection on Easter Sunday.
According to the readings, the disciples profoundly recommitted themselves to the values of the kingdom that Jesus preached in word and deed, fulfilling Christ’s promise of a kingdom that is already alive on Earth even while its fullness awaits us in the next life. This is a perfect message for Divine Mercy Sunday, as the embodiment of God’s reign in and through the Church is fundamentally the embodiment of mercy in the world. It is also a perfect message for the faithful struggling to navigate a world defined by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Consider the first line from this Sunday’s readings. “They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life…”
In some ways the vision of a vibrant life together articulated in the Acts of the Apostles seems to be precisely what we are not doing at the moment as we embrace social distancing and effectively isolate ourselves from those around us. Yet, as Gerald Beyer’s recent guest post articulated so well, it is paradoxically in and through our separation that we are living out our Christian call to solidarity so appropriately.
Our social distancing is only possible as long as we accept our responsibility to devote ourselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life. If we think of ourselves as only responsible for our own wellbeing in isolation then we can easily give up on the sacrifices this current moment requires. If, however, we remember the new commandment from Holy Thursday, and consider what it means to love others as Christ has loved us, then we can see the importance of making sacrifices for the benefit of the most vulnerable. We are devoting ourselves to the wellbeing of our community, even as we separate ourselves physically from that communal life.
The second reading, meanwhile, speaks to the faith that the Resurrection ignited for the early Church. God, “in his great mercy gave us a new birth to a living hope,” the author explains, encouraging the faithful to see the world around them through the victory of the Resurrection. The implication is that “you rejoice, although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials.”
Likely written in response to physical persecution of Christians by the authorities, this call to living hope and joy in the midst of tribulation certainly speaks to our present moment as well.
More than a month into social distancing for most of the country, people are starting to feel the effects of this isolation and our “new normal” more dramatically, and the sense of having to suffer through various trials is hitting home more regularly. As people shaped by the Resurrection, however, we have reason to hope and even to rejoice. Much like the early Church, we must find ways to lean on that faith to embrace a living hope for ourselves, our families, and our communities so that we can weather this storm for the benefit of all.
Finally, the Gospel puts this into perspective, establishing mercy as the thread that ties all of these illustrations from the early Church together.
The Second Sunday of Easter became Divine Mercy Sunday in part because this is the day when we hear the story of the encounter between Jesus and (“Doubting”) Thomas. In this context, Jesus’s reaction to Thomas’s doubts is not a passive aggressive retort to his disbelief (“Fine. Put your fingers in my hands!”), but an act of genuine compassion. Jesus is saying if this is what you need to have faith, then I will provide it because I wish to give you peace.
In the face of doubt, selfishness, and even rejection, Jesus reacts with merciful love, providing exactly what is needed to get Thomas past the obstacles that are holding him back from the kind of transformation that leads to a recommitment to the values of the kingdom and a living hope in the face of tribulation.
The Gospel reading thus offers a source of solace to those of us who may find the early Church’s response to the resurrection a challenge in the midst of a pandemic. How are we to devote ourselves to communal life when we cannot even see our friends and neighbors? How could we possibly have living hope and choose to rejoice in the midst of so much sickness, death, and loss around us?
The answer from Jesus’s merciful encounter with Thomas is that we do not need to rely on ourselves for this impossible task. The strength is not from within us anyway, but from the God who loves us enough to respond to the depths of our doubts with mercy.
Let us take heed, then, of the call to devote ourselves to the teachings of the apostles and the communal life. Let us find ways to embrace living hope and, yes, even to rejoice, for no matter how challenging it may seem, the God who triumphed over death on Easter Sundays is the same God who assures us “for God all things are possible” (MT 19:26).