Many of you have either read or seen movie adaptations of Victor Hugo’s 19th Century masterpiece, The Hunchback of Notre Dame. According to Hugo, the reason he originally began his novel was to bring awareness of Gothic architecture to his contemporaries in light of some less-than-beautiful trends in church buildings and renovations that were common at the time. After some of the so-called “wreck-o-vations” of ecclesiastical property in the 20th Century, I think many of us can sympathize with Hugo’s concern! One hopes that the architectural and political minds behind the restoration of Notre Dame after the tragic fires earlier this month will spend some time reading the novel. At any rate, what many folks do not know is that the titular Hunchback was named after this Sunday, the Octave of Easter, often called “Quasimodo Sunday” in the Western Church, based on the Latin rendering of our introit antiphon from 1 Peter 2:2, “As newborn babes, alleluia: desire ye the sincere milk of the word, alleluia.”
In English, we have more commonly called the Octave of Easter “Low Sunday,” as a way of contrasting it with the heights of Easter Sunday itself. As we said last week, Easter Sunday is the Feast of Feasts, commemorating our Lord’s Resurrection, without which our entire faith would crumble to dust. It’s not uncommon these days for folks to talk about Easter being a 50-day feast, lasting all the way until Pentecost. But the truth is, we can’t sustain 50 days of feasting, chocolate, new dresses or suits, and colored eggs. No, as our prayer book points out this is the first Sunday after Easter, not the more modern “second Sunday of Easter.” Both of the traditional renderings of this Octave speak to this truth. Today is Low Sunday, because we can’t and shouldn’t try to live off of the spiritual highs from Easter Sunday. No, we need to grow and learn to live in our lives as regular Christians who are living in light of the Resurrection. And this is where 1 Peter 2:2 comes into play: we need to be nurtured with God’s word if we are to grow.
Easter is an ideal time for new baptisms in the Church. If you’ve ever attended an Easter Vigil service, there is a ceremony at the baptismal font that reminds us of this. And whenever there are new converts to the faith who have spent the year in Catechesis, the Easter Vigil is when they would usually be baptized. Those words from our Introit are a reminder of what it means to be a disciple or catechumen of the Lord: one who is nurtured with the sincere milk of God’s word. The thing is, we never outgrow catechesis. We never outgrow the “basics” of our faith. Yes, we should certainly learn to chew on the deeper things, the “meat” of the faith (as St. Paul saith). But we are always to desire the milk of the faith as well. This is why, by the way, the bishop wanted our diocesan catechism to be based on the older, shorter catechism from our Prayer Book: it needs to be small enough to be the milk of the word. Some of the more modern catechisms are less suited to catechesis than to use as a reference book. While there is value to such thorough and detailed works, we always need something that is just as suitable for new converts and confirmation students as it is for cradle Christians who need frequent reminders of the most essential aspects of the faith.
Our Collect for the day similarly speaks to this need for growth in our Christian lives, whether we’re newly baptized converts or seasoned veterans of the faith:
Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; Grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth; through the merits of the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
According to the “Common Prayer Commentary” from the Church of Canada, today’s collect is the first one in the Church Year to address God as “Almighty Father.” Now that we have encountered the Risen Christ who has died for our sins and risen again for our justification, we can turn to the Almighty as our Father, not merely as our Master. It is not insignificant that two of the three main things we learn in catechesis are the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, where we are taught that God Almighty is the Father, and is also our Father.
Our Collect for the day also reminds us that it is through the merits of our Lord Jesus that we can put away the leaven of malice and wickedness. I’ve mentioned this before, but “Easter” in most other languages is a variation of the Greek word Pascha, which comes directly from the Hebrew word Pesach, translated into English as “Passover.” In the Old Testament, the Passover, the Pascha, the “Easter,” as it were, was an eight-day feast of unleavened bread, commemorating the speedy escape from Egypt when the Israelites’ bread didn’t have time to rise. But we also find throughout the Old Testament, and later affirmed in the New, that leaven symbolized sin. When baking, leaven (typically yeast, but it can also be some other fermenting agent) works its way throughout the dough changing the entire character of the bread. Sin works the same way: it works its way through our lives changing us from whom we’re created to be. And while leaven in bread makes it nice and fluffy, the leaven of sin is what brings death into our flesh, and indeed into all of fallen Creation.
Remember the Matins Hymn for Easter, Pascha Nostrum, that begins with 1 Corinthians 5:7 (page 162 in the Prayer Book): “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us: therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, neither with the leaven of malice and wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” When we were dead in our sins, we were leavened with malice and wickedness. But now we keep our Paschal feast with sincerity (that is, “pureness of living” per our Collect) and truth, with the sincere milk of God’s word.
In our Gospel, we have Jesus’ appearance to the Apostles on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. Turn in your bibles to John 20:19 (page 171 in your Prayer Book):
On the evening of that day, the first day of the week, the doors being locked where the disciples were for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.
Despite the witness of Mary Magdalene who had seen the Lord, despite even the witness of Peter and John to the empty tomb, the Apostles were hiding out, in fear of those who had put Jesus to death. They didn’t yet believe. They didn’t yet have faith. But our Lord showed them his wounds and said “Peace be with you.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria observes:
When Christ greeted is holy disciples with the words “peace be with you,” by peace he meant himself, for Christ’s presence always brings tranquility of soul. This is the grace Paul desired for believers when he wrote, “The peace of Christ which passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds.” The peace of Christ which passes all understanding is in fact the Spirit of Christ, who fills those who share in him with every blessing.
The only thing that could banish fear and unbelief from the Apostles, and from our own selves, is the peace that comes from our Lord’s presence. And notice that he showed them his wounds when he greeted them with that divine peace. It is through the blood and water that flowed from our Lord’s wounds that we are healed. It is through his precious blood shed for us and his body broken for us that we can be in Christ’s presence and have his peace. The Creed reminds us of the foundational nature of Jesus’ passion, death, and resurrection. When asked what we learn from the Creed, the catechumens respond (among other things) that they learn to believe “in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind.” Without redemption we have no peace.
Let’s pick up in the Gospel with Verse 21:
Jesus said unto them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”
Again, Jesus gives them his peace. The first time it was a sign and reminder of their redemption as they saw the wounds from our Lord’s passion. This time it is part of their commissioning for ministry.
The sending of the Apostles, and by extension all those in pastoral ministry, is a direct result of the Father sending Jesus. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” As we see in Jesus’ ministry, a major part of the Apostle’s commission was to teach people about and call people into the Kingdom of God. St. Cyril of Alexandria observes:
Christ says that he sends the apostles even as the Father had sent him, that they might fully comprehend their mission: to call sinners to repentance and to minister to those who were caught up in evil, whether of body or soul. In all their dealings on this earth, they were not in any way to follow their own will but the will of him who sent them. They were also called to save the world by their teaching, so far as it was possible.
St. Matthew puts it this way in the final words of his Gospel: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” A disciple is a learner, a follower; in short: a catechumen. If you are a disciple of the Lord, you will always be a catechumen, always learning, always growing in the sincere milk of the word.
Finally, our gospel passage concludes with Christ giving to the Apostles the authority which is often called “the office of the keys,” that is, the “binding and loosing” aspect of the pastoral ministry over sins. “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” This is not an arbitrary power trip for the Apostles or for priests and pastors today. Rather, it is an aspect of exercising God’s word, even an aspect of the Holy Spirit speaking through the preaching of the word. When we preach the Law and the Gospel, also found in our Catechism in the learning of the 10 commandments and the creed, God’s Spirit convicts those who are called. As we read in our Epistle, “It is the Spirit that beareth witness, because the Spirit is truth.”
The key to using the “power of the keys” is whether there is repentance on behalf of the one who is seeking God’s forgiveness. Scripture is clear that God always offers forgiveness to the person who repents. This is expressed eloquently in Ezekiel 33:11, alluded to in our absolution from Morning Prayer: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?”
Repentance is also key to the Christian life. We never reach perfection on this side of eternity. We are always struggling with our sins. We are always fighting the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. This is why we have confession and absolution in all of our major services. This is one of the reasons we have the pastoral ministry: to speak God’s forgiveness to those who repent.
The other side of the coin is that the Word of God, and by extension the Pastoral Ministry declares God’s judgement to those who will not repent. We do this so that the unrepentant sinner might be convicted by the Holy Spirit and come to his senses, just like the Prodigal Son in our Lord’s Parable.
The cleansing blood of Christ’s wounds, the offer of forgiveness and repentance, and the peace that Christ gives us are all part of the same foundational teaching of the Gospel, they are all aspects of the pure milk of God’s word. As we live in light of the Resurrection commemorated in our greatest Paschal Feast, may we always look to the milk of the Gospel, always be nourished, always remember that we are ever disciples and catechumens, children of our Heavenly Father.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.