Pascha II — The Sunday of St. Thomas
(Acts 5:12-20; John 20:19-31)
The Gospel of John is centered around seven wondrous “signs” which the Lord Jesus performed. A sign is a technical term that means a miracle or wonder-work. Although the appearance of the Savior on the Sunday following His Resurrection is not one of the technical seven “signs” it is given in the context of the many signs that Jesus performed “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through this belief, you may have life in His Name.” (Jn. 20:31) Jesus declares to Thomas, “You have come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed” (vs. 29). The seven signs that St. John has chosen to focus on in his Gospel are chosen to represent all the miracles that Jesus performed. The seven demonstrate that Jesus has fulfilled the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. When he comes, the messiah can be recognized because he will reenact certain miracles done by the prophets (Jn. 2:1-12 & 2 Kgs. 4:1-7, 42-44). He will heal the sick (Jn. 4:46-54; 5:1-15; 9:1-41 & Isa. 35:5-6; 61:1-2; Joel 2:28-31). He will feed the hungry (Jn. 6:1-15 & Isa. 51:3; Exod. 16:15-21). He will have power over the cosmos (Jn. 6:14-27 & Exod. 15; Job 38:8-11; Ps. 65:5-8). He will raise the dead (Jn. 11:1-54 & 1 Kgs. 17:17-24; 2 Kgs. 4:18-37). St. Thomas the doubting Apostle had to see for himself; he would not believe the account of another. The Lord Jesus affirms Thomas’ faith, but He goes a step further and blesses the faith of those who have not seen and yet still believe. That is us. That is all the faithful throughout the ages who have not been fortunate enough to be eye-witnesses of the Lord’s earthly ministry. So in a very significant way, the Sunday of St. Thomas is our day, too.
Pascha III — The Sunday of the Myrrhbearing Women
(Acts 6:1-7; Mark 15:43-16:8)
(Also commemorated this day are Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus.) The Holy Myrrhbearers are: Mary Magdalene, the Equal-to-the-Apostles and first eye-witness of the Resurrection; the “other Mary;” Salom; Joanna; Susanna “and others with them…” (In iconography, Martha and Mary of Bethany are often added, and joined with the Theotokos.) Rather than presenting a theological or spiritual discussion of the theme of this Sunday, we’ll look into just who these individuals are.
Mary Magdalene is named by all four Evangelists and is often identified as the notorious sinful woman who listened to Jesus’ teachings at the house of Simon the Pharisee, decided to forsake her life of sin, anointed the feet of the Lord and from then on followed Him (Lk. 7). This sinful woman is the subject of the beloved and very beautiful Hymn of St. Kassiani that we sing on Holy Wednesday. Mary Magdalene is the woman out of whom the Lord cast seven demons (Lk 8:2-3 & Mk. 16:9). Sometimes Mary Magdalene is identified with Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha (Mt. 26, Mk. 14, Jn. 11 & 12). Mary Magdalene stood at the Cross of the Savior, witnessed His burial, visited the tomb very early on Easter Sunday, saw the Risen Lord, went to tell the disciples that the Lord had risen (and was the very first human being in the world to proclaim “M’shee ho dkom” (Aramaic for “Christ is Risen”) and returned to the tomb. Various traditions disagree about many of the elements and identifications as to just who Mary Magdalene is. She is somewhat cloaked in mystery, but she is a greatly loved saint of the Church.
The “other Mary” may be the wife of Clopas (Cleopas / Alphaeus) and the mother of the Apostles James the Younger and Joseph / Joses (Mt. 27:56; Mk. 15:40-41, 47 16:1-8; Lk. 24:9-11; Jn. 19:25). Clopas (according to the 1st century Jewish historian Josephus) was the brother of Joseph the Carpenter. Clopas was one of the first men (i.e., with Luke) to see the Risen Lord (Lk. 24:13-35). Thus, this other Mary is likely one of the inner circle of the relatives and friends of the Savior.
Salome is perhaps Jesus’ aunt and sister of the Theotokos. She appears to be the wife of Zebedee, and thus the mother of the Apostles James and John. Or perhaps Salome was the daughter of Joseph, the foster-father of the Savior and guardian of the Theotokos. The Fathers and Mothers of the Church differ as to which of these two theories is accepted. Salome was among the women who followed Jesus and looked after Him and His disciples. Salome and the other Mary, as mothers of the disciples were early-on involved in the Savior’s Galilean lakeside ministry and comprise the inner-circle of relatives and friends of the Lord. (Mt. 20:20-23; 27:55-56; Mk. 15:40-41; 16:1)
Joanna is the wife of Chuza, King Herod’s steward (Lk. 8). He is the financial minister and manager of the royal estates. Joanna resides in Jerusalem at the Hasmonean Palace. It is likely that Joanna was well acquainted with the Pharisees Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus. All three of these individuals were secretly disciples of the Lord. Joanna, together with the other women from Galilee took note of where Jesus had been buried, prepared spices and ointments with which to anoint His body, went to the tomb an found it empty, returned to tell the Eleven and the others of the angel’s message (Lk. 23:55-24:11).
Susanna is a friend of Joanna, “one of the other women” who provided for the Lord and His disciples “out of their own resources” during their Galilean ministry (Lk. 8:3).
Joseph of Arimathea was a Pharisee and a respected member of the Sanhedrin — the supreme Jewish council which had legislative, judiciary and executive authority in Israel. Joseph was wealthy, he was righteous, he was awaiting the Kingdom of God, he was a secret follower of the Lord and had not consented to that the Pharisees had planned and carried out regarding the arrest and trial of the Savior. It was Joseph who owned the tomb in which the Lord was laid. He also had purchased the linen shroud in which the Lord’s body was wrapped. Joseph organized the taking-down of Jesus’ body from the cross and he it was who rolled the stone across the entrance of the tomb. (Mt. 27:57-59; Mk. 15:43-46; Lk. 23:50; Jn. 19:38-42; Acts 13:29)
Nicodemus was also a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin. He was the secret disciple who came in the middle of the night to the Lord Jesus and conversed with Him about being born anew (Jn. 3:1-9). He also insisted to his fellow Pharisees that (according to the Law of Moses) Jesus be given a fair hearing (Jn. 7:46-9). Finally it is Nicodemus, together with Joseph, who administered the rites of burial to the Savior (19:39).
There are many legends about most of these individuals (i.e., red Easter eggs; hawthorn bushes and holy grails). What is given here is simply based on the words of the New Testament.
Pascha IV — The Sunday of the Paralytic
(Acts 9:32-42 & John 5:1-15)
During the season between Passover and Pentecost one year, the Lord Jesus entered the Jerusalem Temple precincts and headed over to the Sheep Pool near the Temple stock yards. It was at this pool that the sacrificial lambs were washed and given one last drink of water before being taken into the Court of Priests and slaughtered for the daily morning and evening sacrifice. There was an underground spring that fed the pool with water. Every now and then the spring would percolate and the surface of the pool would ripple. The idea came to be held that at the time of the rippling, the Archangel Raphael (the patron of healing — see Tobit 3:17) had actually descended and stirred the water with his wings as a signal for all the sick to enter into the pool — and that the very first person to touch the water would be healed of whatever disease he or she possessed. Around the pool lay or sat many miserably sick people waiting for a cure. Imagine the scene as soon as the water rippled: the people who were lying and sitting on the stairs leading down into the water would crawl in, pushing, swearing and shoving each other out of the way so as to be the first to get in and benefit from the healing power of the pool. It was a terrible place full of foul, rotten smells, moaning and groaning, envy, hatred and quarrels. Most “decent folk” tried to avoid the Sheep Pool. But it is exactly there where the Savior headed on that day. On the deck of this pool that Christ found a man who had been unable to move his limbs for 38 years. (It is significant that the Israelites had wandered and waited in the desert wilderness for 38 years before crossing through the waters of the Jordan and enter the Holy and Promised Land — see Deut. 2:14-15). “Do you want to be healed?” “I have nobody to place me in the water…” And Jesus tells him to pick up his mat and walk — which he does. The Lord Jesus came to this place of envy. He sought the place that most would avoid. He looked around and His eye fell on the one who had been abandoned by everybody — one who was sick, lonely, hopeless. And in many ways, that man is you and me. At Vespers on the eve of this day we sing, “It was for your sake that I became a man; it was for you that I took on flesh. You say you have no one, but I say ‘Take up your bed and walk.’” Baptism heals the infirmities of our body and soul and frees us from paralyzing sin and self-absorption.
The Feast of Mid-Pentecost
(Micah 4:2-5, 5:4-5, 6:2-8; Isaiah 12:3-4; Isaiah 55:1-13; Proverbs 9:1-11; Acts 14:6-18; John 7:14-30)
The Lord Jesus was in the Jerusalem Temple on the mid-feast of the harvest time Festival of Tabernacles one year, teaching about His own divine ministry and about the mystery of water. The Feast of Tabernacles commemorated the 40-year wanderings of the Jews in the desert. Part of the ritual of this feast was when (to the singing of the Great Hallel — Psalms 113 through 118), the High Priest left the Temple and walked to the spring of Siloam at the foot of Mt. Zion. With a golden chalice he scooped up clean water from the pool. At the sound of the trumpet he and the congregations returned to the temple. The High Priest then mixed the water with wine and poured it over the altar of oblation. This action commemorated the gift of drinking of water for the Jews in the desert when Moses struck the rock (Num. 20:11). So, at the harvest-time Feast of Tabernacles, the Lord runs with the theme of water and also proclaims Himself Himself as the Source of the True Living Water. The Church has taken the theme of the middle of the Feast of Tabernacles (Jn. 14) and applies it to the mid-point between Pascha and Pentecost. St. Paul identifies the wilderness rock from which the Hebrew people drank (Num. 20) with Christ Himself (1 Cor. 10:4). “Come, let us drink, not miraculous water drawn forth from a barren stone, but a new vintage springing from the tomb of Christ.” Again, a baptismal theme (water) is coupled with the theme of water changed into wine at a wedding banquet (John 2:1-11), coupled with the Wedding Banquet of the Lamb of God to which we are called (Apoc. 19:9) all find a place here.
Pascha V — The Sunday of the Samaritan Woman
(Acts 11:19-30; John 4:5-42)
The Jews despised the Samaritans for a number of reasons. The Samaritans only adhered to the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy) — not to the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures (and thus, not the whole of the Hebrew religion). The Jews considered that this list was a human selection, not the full canon given by God. The Samaritans had their own center of worship and sacrifice on Mount Gerazim. This was a rival to the Temple on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. The Jews considered Samaritan worship to be fraudulent — anything but true and spiritual — again, of human origin, not decreed by God. The Samaritans and the Jews considered each other as rivals if not enemies. Jews considered Samaritans to be ritually unclean. No good Jew would associate with such a Gentile. Luke 10 records the story of the Good Samaritan who was more compassionate and therefore more righteous in dealing with the victim of robbery and beating than “righteous” Jews. Luke 17 tells of the Samaritan leper who came back to give thanks to the Savior after being healed — whereby the nine Jewish lepers felt no sense of gratitude. Finally, the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well evangelized her whole village. The Savior broke with rabbinical tradition and not only publicly spoke with a woman, but He conversed with (and drank from the hands of) this Gentile. Why? Immediately He saw into her very heart. She was not a happy person. She had lived in a sinful relationship with a succession of domestic partners. Jesus simply questions her about her husband. And in the splendid radiance of the Light Unapproachable — in the Presence of the Lord which is a consuming fire (the uncreated Fire of Love and Fire of Judgment) it finally dawns on her that she is living a lie. She can’t contain this new insight. She has to tell somebody. She runs to the village to tell her people. She takes the Good News to them. And after two days with the Savior they know for themselves that He is the Savior of the World. Whether or not this woman’s real name was Photini / Fatima / Svetlana as an allusion to light doesn’t matter. The fact that the inner tradition of the Church has given her such a name indicates that her role in the Kingdom is a vital one that we all would do well to emulate. How have you brought the Good News to your people? Living Water — the illuminating Water of Life is another baptismal theme we encounter at this season. For this reason the newly-baptized are called the “illuminati” or newly-illumined, the photizomenoi.
Pascha VI — The Sunday of the Blind Man
(Acts 16:16-34; John 9:1-38)
Taking up the baptismal theme once again, we close the Paschal season with the story of the man who was born blind. This selection stresses two major themes of the whole of John’s Gospel: Darkness and Light (or illumination / enlightenment) AND the divinity of Christ. (Just read the Paschal Gospel passage — John 1:1-17 — which sets the scene for this overall message.) There are at least sixteen instances in the Gospel of John where the Savior is referred to or refers to Himself as light. Darkness can be physical (outward) or spiritual (inner) darkness. Blindness can be a visual disability. It can also be a spiritual disability. In the passage for this Sunday both types of sightedness are granted to the man born blind. Not only does he receive his vision but he comes to a growing awareness (and enlightenment) as to Who Jesus Is. First he is given sight. He responds by telling his neighbors by calling Jesus simply a man. Next, when questioned, he tells the Pharisees that Jesus is a prophet. After further questioning by the Pharisees that he asserts that Jesus is from God. Finally he proclaims that Jesus not only is the Son of Man (i.e., the Messiah), but He is Lord and God as well. (Note the same declaration by the Apostle Thomas on the Sunday after the Resurrection: Jn. 20:28.) Contrast this with the statement of the Savior to the Pharisees (9:39) affirming that some people — though the think that they see are really blind. The Pharisees of all people should know Who the Messiah is (see 3:10), but they refuse to believe. Their hearts are so hardened against the obvious that it becomes crystal clear that they have brought about their own judgment. The Incarnation of the Word enlightens the world SO THAT when confronted with the truth it becomes only too evident that those who “see” are in fact judged to be blind, preferring the darkness to the light (Jn. 3:19).