How do you feel about your name? Do you know why you were called what you are and what the name actually means? Do you have a name that has been proudly passed down from generation to generation? Does it derive from a place, like Sharon or Adrian…or does your name perhaps describe a revered personality trait, like Brian, meaning ‘noble’ or Catherine, which means ‘pure or innocent’? And if you have a nickname, who calls you that? Is it one that has a complicated derivation, or one that is more obvious – like Chalky or Taffy?
Well, one name that has long since been ascribed to today, the first Sunday after Easter, is an obvious one – Low Sunday. After the solemnity and celebrations of last week; after eggs and breakfasts, market square sermons and Sunday evening traipsing, we are now back to school and work, back to the everyday run of things and back to a normal Sunday service with no chocolate in sight. And like the morning after a big party, some of us might feel a little flat. Traditionally those who had been baptised on Easter Sunday would today lay aside their white robes, end their celebrations and would be reminded of the words in the second chapter of the first book of Peter –
“Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation now that you have tasted that the Lord is good”.
And if I used my best GCSE Latin to tell you how those words would have been heard in churches for centuries, you might begin to work out the origin of the name of a legendary character from literature, for 1 Peter chapter 2 verse 2 begins ‘Quasi modo geniti infantes…’.
Anyone? Absolutely – Quasimodo, Victor Hugo’s tragic protagonist who was found abandoned on the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Sunday after Easter. In the novel, poor Quasimodo is described as ‘hideous’ and a ‘creation of the devil’ due to his facial disfigurement and hunchback, and the name given to him both represents the fact that he was found on Low Sunday and also refers to how he was viewed by others as the words ‘quasi modo’ can be translated as ‘almost so’ or ‘almost the standard measure’…In other words, in his abandonment and disfigurement, he was seen as less than normal; less than truly human. What a name to give a baby!
And speaking of names again, we haven’t yet got to our reading from John and the account of the risen Jesus being eventually encountered by the disciple who is almost always referred to with the derogatory moniker – ‘doubting’. For on this low Sunday, Christians throughout the years and across the globe have retold the story of Thomas, the disciple who missed Christ’s dramatic post-resurrection appearance to the other disciples and who is said to have uttered the words, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where his nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe”.
So…low Sunday, Quasimodo, doubting Thomas…today is associated with names which don’t exactly engage the heart or inspire one onward. But I have to say, I haven’t always given much weight to human appointed names. I’m not sure we always get them right. Calling King Ethelred the ‘Unready’ is a mistranslation; naming Jose Mourinho ‘The Special One’ is pushing it and referring to Victoria Beckham as ‘Posh’ is just plain wrong! And take me. When I was born, how could my parents have looked at such potential, such a blessing and decide to call me not Nicholas ‘victory of the people’; not Richard, which means ‘powerful leader’; not even Matthew, ‘gift from God’…no, my parents, looking at their beautiful, wonderfully behaved baby boy, decided to name me ‘Philip…a lover of horses’. Now, I don’t mean to be ungrateful or anything but I’m not really a fan of horses at all. In fact ‘apathetic to horses’ or ‘a little bit scared of being on a horse’ would be a more accurate name. So forgive me if I don’t always think that the names that we give things or people are always accurate.
Take the disciple Thomas, for instance. Whilst only ever mentioned in passing in the other gospels, in John’s account of Jesus’ life, Thomas is mentioned on a number of occasions. In chapter 11, when Jesus speaks of Lazarus’ death and his subsequent desire to go to Bethany, a dangerous place for him to be, Thomas remarks, “Let us also go that we may also die with him”, which might perhaps have earnt him the name ‘courageous Thomas’…and in chapter 14, when Jesus is talking about the many rooms in his Father’s house, Thomas is brave enough to admit his ignorance, saying, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” which might well have earnt him the name ‘honest or grappling Thomas’.
And why single Thomas out as a doubter for his claim that he would need to encounter the risen Christ himself and not rely on the testament of others when that is exactly what the other disciples do when Mary tells them of her meeting with the resurrected Christ in the gospels of Mark and Luke? What’s more, in John’s gospel, Jesus seems content to meet Thomas’ conditions, the consequence of which is the most powerful and complete confession of Jesus in the fourth gospel – ‘My Lord and my God!’
It is Thomas who first declares Jesus as God; Thomas who makes this outrageous and wonderful assertion. So perhaps we should not call Thomas by his moniker so thoughtlessly. Perhaps, rather, we should admire his honesty, empathize with his desire to encounter the risen Christ personally and echo his confession of Jesus as his Lord and his God.
And if we’re feeling in a gracious mood, allow me to indulge myself by suggesting that just as the name ‘doubting Thomas’ is, at best an oversimplification, the name Quasimodo or ‘almost a measure’, is simply a falsehood. In Christ, God took on flesh. In the mystery of the incarnation, God became human. This bizarre but glorious paradox was too much to take in for some early believers for whom it was easier to accept that God only appeared human. For to say that God actually became human must transform the way we view our sisters and brothers. To say that the second member of the Trinity was bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, is to call Jesus brother; it means to take seriously his words that ‘as much as we care – or fail to care – for the least of his sisters and brothers, we care – or fail to care – for him’; it means to rethink how we view our own human bodies. For though we may all feel like ‘almost measures’ from time to time; though we might even, at our worst, treat others as ‘creations of the devil’, in his incarnation, death and resurrection, Jesus redeems and transforms our humanity, such that there should be no more abandoned orphans, no unloved outcasts, no ‘almost measures’, but sisters and brothers of Christ, creations of the ever-loving God.
So that’s doubting Thomas and Quasimodo gone…but surely we can keep ‘Low Sunday’? Surely, today feels like a bit of a letdown after last week’s celebrations?
Well, it may be true that there is no morning breakfast, evening walk or basket of eggs and pretzels to go round but all of those things are, after all, mere symbols, mere pointers to the real joy of Easter, the exact date of which we will never know in this life. As the people of the resurrection, we meet around the empty tomb of Christ every Sunday. We worship the God of creation, incarnation and resurrection in seasons deemed high and low. We come to encounter the living God together every week. For the story we tell in sacrament and in silence, in our worship and witness, contains such claims of universal importance, of overflowing grace and transforming love that no Sunday can truly be low Sunday, slightly nice Sunday or quite good hymns Sunday.
Rather we are invited to gather week by week to share stories of Jesus’ transformation of his friends, such as with Thomas, the believer; invited to see Christ and serve Christ in all our sisters and brothers; invited to worship our Lord and our God, the justly called ‘special one’, whose name truly is above all names. Amen.