Holy Week and Pascha present a real temptation to live one’s faith in a way that seeks to be externally perfect rather than beautiful for Christ. Orthodox Christians see this when we boast about the length of our services and the strictness of our fasting. How much pressure do we feel to have the perfect Pascha experience that includes an overflowing basket along alongside well-dressed children? Move over to social media, and a quick look shows that there are no shortages of memes on this topic. Orthodox Christians have become experts at arguing over the most trivial detail. Do we really have to debate whether “Christ is Risen!” should be greeted with “Indeed He is Risen!” or “Truly He Is Risen!”?
It would appear that polite conformity has won the day.
What is polite conformity? It is a term coined by theologian Luigi Giussani. Polite conformity is the shallow water of our lives that Christ commands us to leave behind. It is adhering to all of the external rituals of Orthodox Christianity without taking the time to verify the Tradition on our own. It is a counterfeit form of witness that is all too familiar in today’s parishes. Polite conformity means accepting Orthodox Christianity without criticism or questions. It gives lip service to the faith to please authority figures, family members, or a peer group. Polite conformity means nodding yes in Church while believing and behaving in a way that is contrary to the Orthodox Faith.
The truth of Pascha shatters the world of polite conformity, because one of the first lessons of the Risen Christ is that doubt is healthy.
Doubt is everywhere, from Holy Saturday to the Sunday of St. Thomas.
An Apostolic Question of Faith
On Holy Saturday the Gospel of Matthew tell us that “the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted.” (Matthew 28:16-20)
The Gospel read at Agape Vespers tell us of the doubting Apostle Thomas who proclaims “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25)
And The Orthodox Church even devotes an entire Sunday to honoring the doubt that filled Thomas on the very first Sunday after Pascha.
Doubt has a special place in the Paschal season.
These scripture readings are not a coincidence but an example of how the Orthodox Faith challenges us to bring our doubts to Christ and transform them. “Doubt is but another element of faith” writes St. Augustine of Hippo, while St. Gregory the Great reminds us that, “The disbelief of Thomas has done more for our faith than the faith of the other disciples. As he touches Christ and is won over to belief, every doubt is cast aside, and our faith is strengthened. So the disciple who doubted and then felt Christ’s wounds, becomes a witness to the reality of the resurrection.”
The most beautiful part of Christ dealing with doubt in the scriptures above is the fact that the Son of God does not force us to believe. He invites one to begin a journey of real love. He shows us through His example that every person is called to carry his or her cross and die to those things that do not bring us closer to Him. Doubt is a part of this process that brings new and everlasting life. The Apostle Thomas doubted and yet was invited into an ever-deeper relationship with Jesus Christ. He carried his cross of doubt. Today, there are many Orthodox Christians who have doubts and are in need of a Church that welcomes doubt as a healthy part of what it means to live the Orthodox Christian Faith.
Holy Week and Pascha always see the Church welcoming new members into the Body of Christ. Make no mistake, these baptisms and chrismations should be celebrated. However, the Sunday of St. Thomas is a special time to remember that doubt is a healthy part of being made in the image and likeness of God. It is also time for the Church to place a particular emphasis on those who doubt and the needs they have. Far too many Orthodox Christians find themselves wandering away from the Church because their questions and doubts went unanswered and were even ridiculed.
However, “Not all who wander are lost.” writes J.R.R. Tolkien. St. Thomas Sunday is an excellent time to invite our wandering brothers and sisters to bring the doubts they have and the crosses they carry home to Christ. If the Tradition of the Church teaches us anything, it is that our faith may be the most healthy when it is full of doubt, and the Risen Christ may be closest when he appears the most distant in our lives.
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