Sermon for Low Sunday

by a Dominican friar

“This is the victory which overcometh the world, our faith.”

Today, on the octave day of Easter, the Church gives to us a lesson about the virtue of faith. For faith is the foundation of the spiritual life. It is as if Mother Church were saying to her children, “the Lord is risen, but that will only benefit you in proportion to your faith”.

In today’s epistle, therefore, we hear St John, the beloved apostle, tell us that faith is for each of us the victory by which we overcome the world. And already, in the introit of the Mass today, we heard St Peter, the prince of the apostles, remind us of the qualities which faith should possess. St Peter said: “Like new-born babes, desire the rational milk without guile” (1 Pet 2:2). We are to be like new-born children. But a child believes whatever he is told. A child of God, therefore, believes whatever God tells him. That is the first property of faith – it believes all things, as St Paul says. 

Secondly, the introit does not say simply “drink the milk” but “desire the milk”. That suggests another property of faith, namely that it is eager to know what God has revealed – it likes to search the Scriptures, as Christ says (Jn 5:39), to find out as much as possible about what God has said to us, His children. Finally, this “milk”, that is, divine revelation, is “rational”: when we read the Scriptures or pray the psalms like children wishing to be taught, our minds are enlightened by the Word, that is, by Christ who is the Word, and in this way we understand more about the purposes of God our Father. Describing the days after his baptism, when he had just been enlightened and was like a new-born babe, St Augustine says, speaking to God, “I could not have enough in those days of the wonderful sweetness of considering the depth of thy counsels concerning the salvation of the human race”. He drank deeply of the “rational milk”.

We learn from the gospel that the apostle St Thomas was at first found wanting in his faith. Why did he refuse to believe the testimony of the other ten apostles, men whom he knew well, and whom he surely knew were not dishonest? It is hard to be certain. Perhaps Thomas was secretly a little hurt that the Lord had chosen to appear to the others and not to him. In any case, there was something in his heart that prevented him from making an act of faith in the resurrection. This reminds us that faith is what we call a supernatural virtue: that is, it is not something that can be produced simply by will-power or by reasoning, however intelligent a person may be – it is always a gift of God, and like all the greatest gifts of God, faith is given not to the proud but to the humble. 

Christ responds to the unbelief of His apostle with great wisdom. Notice that Thomas’s disbelief was serious, since he was disbelieving not just the other apostles, but ultimately, God Himself, who gave testimony through them. Often, if someone disbelieves us, we are quick to justify ourselves, because we can’t bear anyone to have a bad opinion of us. But Our Lord, who could certainly have appeared at any time to Thomas, waits and allows a week to pass. Perhaps He allowed His apostle to remain in unbelief for all this time so that Thomas would in the end recognise more readily that he had been guilty of sin in not listening to the testimony of his friends.  

And after eight days, again His disciples were within, and Thomas with them. And Jesus cometh, the doors being shut, and stood in the midst, and said, “Peace be to you” (Jn 20:26). 

After the patience of Our Lord, waiting eight days before vindicating the truth of His resurrection, we see another mark of His goodness. When He appears to the apostles, He does not overwhelm Thomas with His glory. Rather, He invites him with simplicity to touch His sacred wounds and even to place his hand in His sacred side. Christ thus adapts His manner of teaching to the weakness of His hearers. Yet at the same time, Our Lord owes it to His own majesty not to treat the apostle as if he had done nothing wrong, or as if he had even shown a praiseworthy prudence in refusing to believe too soon. So, after the apostle’s confession of faith, Jesus says to him, “Because thou hast seen me, Thomas, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and have believed.” It is a rebuke from the Master to the disciple, a rebuke made with love, but intended to effect a lasting compunction in the disciple’s heart. By these same words, Christ is also teaching all the apostles, who are themselves to become teachers of the nations, the supreme necessity for men to have faith in the resurrection of Christ, if they are to save their souls.

But we should not mention the fault of the apostle St Thomas without considering also the magnificent act of faith by which he, so to speak, redeems himself. Sometimes people are puzzled by the words of Our Lord, Because thou hast seen, thou hast believed. If Thomas has now seen, why does he still need to believe – surely faith is of what is unseen? The Fathers of the Church give us the answer to this question when they explain that Thomas sees one thing and believes another. He sees the risen Christ, but believes in His divinity. In this way, as the great monastic writer of the 19th century, Dom Prosper Guéranger, remarks, St Thomas seems even to surpass the other apostles. Their attention is fixed on the humanity of Our Lord, restored as it is by the miracle of the resurrection. Thomas passes as it were through the wounds of Jesus’s humanity and reaches all the way to His divinity, as he says to Him, “My Lord and my God”. By this act of faith, made under the influence of divine grace, St Thomas merited not only to have his past sin forgiven, but also to become a teacher of the gospel to the ends of the earth. In his preaching, he passed well beyond the bounds of the Roman empire into India where he founded churches who have never forgotten that St Thomas Didymus was their apostle.

Today’s Sunday is called, as you know, Dominica in albis. Its full name in Latin is Dominica in albis depositis, which literally means “the Sunday of the white garments that have been put off”. This name refers to the ancient custom of clothing in white garments those people who were baptised at the paschal vigil. These new Christians then remained clothed in their new garments for one week, in this way showing themselves and those around them, that they had died and been buried with Christ, and had risen again to a new life by the power of His resurrection. The neophytes, that is, the newly-enlightened ones, wore these garments for the last time on the Vespers of Easter Saturday, and so the Mass of this Sunday was the first time that they were seen without them; hence the name of the day, “the Sunday of the white garments that have been put off”, Dominica in albis depositis

But in the early centuries, an interesting ceremony took place after the Vespers of Easter Saturday. The newly-baptised came to a chapel of the cathedral to appear before their bishop. He congratulated them on the grace they had received, and gave them a paternal admonition to keep their souls as pure as the garments they had been wearing. He then blessed water in which the garments would be washed, so that they could be used again the following year by others. After the new Christians had resumed their normal clothes, the bishop gave to each of them as a permanent reminder of their baptism, a tablet of blessed wax, with an image of the Lamb of God impressed upon it. In Rome, of course, it would have been the pope who distributed these tablets; and even after adult baptisms became rare, the popes continued the tradition of distributing these tablets, called the Agnus Dei, in the first year of their pontificate, and every seven years thereafter. The Agnus Dei, the name given to this wax tablet distributed by the popes, is traditionally made from the wax of the previous year’s paschal candle, mixed with chrism, and blessed with great solemnity on the Wednesday after Easter. On Easter Saturday, the pope gave an Agnus Dei to cardinals and other prelates. It has long been valued as a powerful sacramental, giving protection against the devil and against natural disasters, including pestilences. The rite of blessing the Agnus Dei has not been performed since the Easter of 1964, but we can certainly hope that some future pope will restore it.  

May the Lamb of God, who was immolated for us on Calvary and who has risen again, guard us all during this paschal time and bring us to a perfect union with Himself, who reigns with the Father and the Holy Ghost, world without end. Amen.