Rorate Caeli

Sermon for Quasimodo Sunday: My Lord and My God!

by Father Richard Cipolla

And Thomas said, “My Lord and my God!.” (John 20:28)
He arrived late on purpose, about five minutes, but he was not the only one that was late.  He found a seat in the back of the church so he could leave right way before Communion, not that he cared if anyone saw him leave. It made no difference to him.  He was there only out of a sense of obligation to his mother and father.  This was the once a year church visit.  It was usually on Easter, but he had heard that there was still great snow in Colorado, so he made a deal with his mother that instead of Easter he would go on the Sunday after Easter, and so here he was.

It meant nothing to him, he told himself.  He looked over the congregation to check out the girls he went to school with. No one he recognized.  He looked at the altar, the Easter flowers, the crucifix, the priest in his vestments, all something out of the Middle Ages.  Same old thing, never changes, boring, sign of death.  He had outgrown all of this.  His twin brother still went to Mass, took it seriously, but they never talked about this.  He could not take this seriously, and he went over the familiar reasons in his mind. First, remember Sister Mary Athanasius, his fourth grade teacher.  She caught him throwing away a ham sandwich at lunch and told him that he would suffer for that in purgatory, and she made him take it out of the garbage and eat it. Crazy old nun, but she helped him to see the nonsense that all of this was.  How could one believe all of this with the crazy old nun telling you things to scare you to death?

He remembered the priests who tried to be one of the guys but, who came off as just weird.  He remembered his religion teacher in a Catholic high school talking about the old days when people actually believed that Jesus was God and that the bread at the Mass was his body and that sometimes they would worship this bread.  Cookie worship, he called it, and he laughed and said aren’t we fortunate to live in age when we are rid of superstitions like that.  But he still came to Mass once a year to satisfy his parents.  After all, he was a cultural Catholic, and there is something to be said for preserving culture.

Ah, but he was cool, the essence of coolness, no one could take him in, he was his own man, educated at an elite college, a thinker who knew the game of life already, and he was there to seize what life had to offer.  But what he had heard as a child, what he had seen and felt at those Masses, some of that was still there.  And sometimes those echoes disturbed his coolness, echoes of something he could not quite remember, something that seemed to remind him that he had to do something important, but he could never remember what it was he had to do.

The words of the epistle fell on his ears:  “Although you have never seen him, you love him, and without seeing you believe in him, and rejoice with inexpressible joy touched with glory, because you are achieving faith’s goal, your salvation.” There it is, he said to himself, to believe without seeing, to love someone you cannot see.  What does this mean?  That is the nonsense I left behind.  And yet....He thought about what he did every day as a research physicist, in the world of quantum mechanics where he believed in things he did not see and could never see, for they were in principle un-seeable, and yet they were real, a world full of surprises and unpredictability, a world full of leptons and quarks, electrons that appeared out of the space-time warp from nowhere. But this was different, he told himself, this is different stuff, not the stuff of this religion of the God you cannot see and are supposed to love.  

The choir was now singing the Alleluia before the Gospel.  As the Gospel book was being carried, he remembered something.  Today was not Easter. This was the Sunday after Easter, so the Gospel would not be about the empty tomb.  And suddenly from his memory he knew what the Gospel would be—and it frightened him.  Fear seized him as the priest began:  “On the evening of the first day of the week..”  No, he said to himself, I do not want to hear this today.  Rather tell me about the empty tomb. I don’t want to hear this gospel.  So he tried to block out the words. He thought of other things, about skiing in deep powder just a few days ago.  “At the sight of the Lord…”  He thought about the sleek new car sitting in the parking lot, something he had wanted for so long.  “It happened that one of the twelve, Thomas, the name means twin…”.  Should he leave?  What was happening?  These were only words, verba nuda, as Umberto Eco said at the end of The Name of the Rose.  “I’ll never believe it without probing the nail-prints in his hands”.  Ah, yes, I feel better. This Thomas, this twin, was a man of our times, not to be fooled, needing proof, no credulous faith for this man.

But he knew what was coming, something he had heard so long ago and which was seared on his mind and lay deep down dormant for so long, something he tried to remember, and this was it.  He did not want to hear the next part. So he thought of sex, the ultimate turn-on, something that could plunge him into the oblivion of self-satisfaction, the oblivion of the self.  But even this did not work, for the words, the words were coming as if they were welling out of himself.  “Peace be with you, he said.  And then to Thomas:  Take your finger and examine my hands. Put your hand into my side. Do not persist in your unbelief, but believe!.  Thomas said in response….”For him now time had stopped, for he remembered now what was to come or thought he did and this was the key to the thing he had forgotten to do but he knew he was supposed to do----“My Lord and my God!”

Did the priest forget something, did he miss a line?  Is this the correct translation?  I wish I could read Greek!  There must be another line that the priest forgot to say.  Please God, let there be another line where Thomas comes over to Jesus and feels the nail prints in the hands and feels the wound in his side and then and only then says those words. Please God, he prayed, praying for the first time in many years.  But no. The priest was finishing the Gospel now.  “Blest are they who have not seen and have believed. “ He stood there, and he felt inside as if a hand had grabbed his heart and was forcing it open. He could feel pain as his heart was being forced apart by those words he had heard, or rather by the words that he had wanted to hear but had not heard.  Thomas never felt the woundshe did not need to feel the wounds! He saw what he had already heard, Sister Mary Athanasius and the dirty ham sandwich, the priests with friendly open faces who meant well, cookie worship.  It all rang true, it all rang true, and there was the bell, the bell rang and he looked up, at the same time that his heart was about to burst, he looked up, the bell rang, and the words tumbled out of his mouth, his heart, his soul:  “My Lord and my God!”