What is the message for us on Paschal evening, when the churches celebrate Paschal Vespers? When we read the story of Thomas’ doubt and anguish, we want to jump ahead to finish the tale, and reflect on how Christ at length came to Thomas to resolve his doubts, fill him with joy, and elicit the saving cry, “My Lord and my God!” But that story belongs not to Paschal Vespers, but to Thomas Sunday, a week later. The message for Paschal Vespers is not “Christ is risen!” It is a much harder message and a more difficult lesson. And it can be summed up in one word: “Wait.”
It is not a very happy word. Try using it on a child who wants something badly, and take notes on his or her reaction. We don’t like to wait, even if we suspect there may be a good result at the end of our waiting, or even if we are promised a good result. Waiting is hard.
It was even harder for Thomas. Thomas, I have always said, did not speak as he did because he was a hard-hearted doubter, but rather because he was a soft-hearted lover. He loved Jesus deeply, profoundly, and heroically. If we turn back a few pages in John’s Gospel, we see that he was even prepared to go and die with Jesus when he thought that Jesus’ trip to Judea to see Lazarus would end in His death (John 11:16). Jesus was his whole life, and his whole life therefore fell apart when he saw Jesus betrayed, abandoned, condemned, tortured to death, and buried. Harder still, Thomas knew that he had a part in that abandonment, when like all the others he forsook Him and fled during His arrest. Thomas’ poor battered old heart could stand withstand another blow, another crushing disappointment. He had to get off the emotional roller-coaster. And so it was that when his companions reported that they had seen Jesus, Thomas had to draw the line in the emotional sand: “Unless I see in His hands the print of the nails”—we can almost hear Thomas’ voice rising—“and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in His side, I will not believe!” (John 20:25). That was how the first Paschal evening ended, not with a joyful revelation, but with a desperate cry of pain and despair.
And then the wait. For Thomas, what we call “Bright Week” was the longest week of his life, and possibly the worst. How many times did he burst into tears that week, or find himself unable to eat or drink or converse? How many times did depression smother him like a black blanket so that he had trouble even getting out of bed? We may never know for sure. But we may be sure that his mind played and re-played the horrible events of Jesus’ arrest, trial, and crucifixion over and over and over, and when he closed his eyes, he could see the cross.
At last, of course, the week was over, and we know how joyfully it ended. The true lesson for us therefore is that if we wait for Jesus, it will all end in joy. Waiting is still hard. Like Thomas during his longest week, we may have to endure pain. We may have to endure bereavement, sickness, and a thousand other tragedies which pierce our hearts and wring tears from our eyes. But at the end of it all, at the end of our earthly existence, Jesus will be there, to make it all right, and to wipe away every tear. Then like Thomas we too can fall down before Him, crying out, “My Lord and my God!” It is okay to wait. It’s hard, but it’s okay. Christ is risen!