What’s the story in the Eastertide Sundays (Year C)?

Eastertide : celebration which keeps going

After all the joy and excitement of Easter Sunday, the Church settles down to enjoy the Easter season which lasts through six more Sundays. Eastertide  ends with the Ascension and then Pentecost, so specifically this is the period  after the Resurrection but while Jesus is still on earth.   He is still the central character, but he comes and goes at this stage in the story.  It is no longer just the story of what happens to him or what he does.

Christ emerging from tomb
Time for the next phase

It is fascinating to see how the focus of the narrative shifts. Jesus is there, but intermittently. He pays visits to the apostles, to put heart into them, but he often finds them cowering in the Upper Room. They are trying to work out what to do next, in a world which has been totally altered by Jesus’ return from the dead.

But what happened next?

We are so used to the idea that Jesus is the living Lord that we don’t give the apostles enough credit for how hard this must have been. We learn about his Resurrection as soon as we learn about his death on the cross, and the length of the annual wait from Good Friday to the Easter liturgies is fixed and familiar. But the apostles had no missals, Gospels or road maps of any kind. They really were making it up as they went along, with Jesus appearing now and then to keep them on the right path and repeat the same message over and over again until they could let themselves believe it.

Mary addressing apostles
Some (male) people take a lot of convincing……
2nd Sunday, still celebrating but also moving on

The second Sunday after Easter is still part of the Easter narrative itself.  The Gospel is the same for each of the three liturgical years, the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Lord.  It is nearly the same psalm (117/118), just with a different verse in the middle, and, as if to emphasize the point, it is the same psalm that we have been singing since the end of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday.  Like a musical octave, the Easter octave strikes the same note.  What shows the change of emphasis which is starting to happen,  is that the First Reading is taken from Acts.

The purpose of the First Reading

Usually the First Reading comes from the Old Testament, and indeed, at the Easter Vigil, we have an orgy of Old Testament readings before we get to the Gospel.  It can be a historical echo of events in Jesus’ life, or a fascinating parallel, or evidence of God’s slow plan of salvation from the shadowy beginnings of life to the prophets’ desperate attempts to pass on God’s message.  But now, after the Resurrection,  everything is changed, changed utterly: and we start needing to focus on what happens next.  The next significant event in the story of Jesus’ earthly life is the Ascension, but we don’t want to get there yet, because we are still celebrating Easter.  So the gospel readings assigned for the rest of the Easter season are in a sense marking time; – in fact, they go backwards.  They give us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ earlier words, because there are a lot more of those, especially in John’s Gospel, than we have already had room for (we will see this again in the Sundays of Ordinary Time).

The Gospel is usually the main narrative

The gospels for these Sundays of the Easter season, then, are not usually taking the story forward.  After the second Sunday of Easter, the three liturgical years diverge, not for the usual reason, that they are taking their readings in sequence from a different evangelist (A : Matthew, B : Mark, C : Luke), because nearly all the gospel readings for Eastertide are taken from John;  but they all take different bits out of John’s Gospel, so as to include more of Jesus’ actual teaching.  But this is of course a recap of earlier events; time has gone back, not forwards.

Eastertide Year C : the gospels

I’m going to concentrate on Eastertide Year C (this year), because otherwise there will be too much to talk about (if it’s worth it, I’ll cover the other years as they come up).  In Year C, all the Eastertide Sunday gospels are from John’s Gospel. Second Sunday of Easter is the same for all three years, the story of Thomas, taken from John (chapter 20), as I said before.  The third Sunday is the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Jesus’ charge to Peter; that is another  event after the Resurrection (John 21).  Then we have (4th Sunday) a reading from John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (very brief, vv 27-30); (5th Sunday), what Jesus says after Judas has gone out to betray him (again very short, John 13 vv31-35, and very obviously back to a previous period), and (6th Sunday) Jesus’ promise in John 14 that he will send the Holy Spirit, and foretelling his departure, like an envoi, and a preparation for the Ascension which will shortly follow (the following Thursday, or in some Lectionaries, the following Sunday).

First Readings : not OT but Acts

The current action, as it were, has moved to the First Reading, because we need to know how the apostles are managing and what they are doing in this changed world they now inhabit.  Jesus is not staying with them as he used to, teaching as he goes along.  Where is the story?  Where is the main character?  Who is the main character?   The apostles are having to work out how to put this new faith into practice. We are not looking for historical parallels, because nothing like this has ever happened before.  The Old Testament has been put on pause while we work this out.

Second Readings from Revelation

Year C is particularly interesting because it uses Revelation as the source of the Second Readings for this same period (in Years A and B, we have readings from the  letters of Peter (A) and John (B), keeping the emphasis on the doings of the early Church, as opposed to Paul’s letters which we have for most of the rest of the year, which tend to be more about doctrine). The readings from Acts in Year C move about inside the book, giving us a general overview of how the early Christians lived.  We get further into the story than in the other years, even into the early travels of Paul and Barnabas, and I think this is why these readings are coupled with the book of Revelation, because Revelation has always been a comfort to the oppressed and persecuted, and the later chapters of Acts describe the persecutions as they took hold.

…and all reinforced by the (carefully chosen) psalms

And of course all this affects the choice of psalms.  They are there to respond to the first reading, reinforce its message and act as a bridge to the second reading.  Their link to the Old Testament readings on an ordinary Sunday is usually fairly clear, and they are out of the same historical context, even if we can’t be sure which is older; but here we have the psalms of David being used as a commentary on early Christian events, after Jesus’ departure, and after the great temporal rupture of the Resurrection.  The context is completely other.  We are singing the Lord’s songs in a totally strange land.  One striking thing is that none of the Eastertide psalms is at all unusual.  They all occur elsewhere in the Church’s year, sometimes more than once.  They are the usual psalms which everyone is already familiar with.  It is the context which has changed.

Musician king with courtiers
Let’s all join in with David’s psalms
First Reading and psalm, 2nd Sunday : starting the (new) story

We start in Acts 5 (so after the Ascension and the revolution of Pentecost), where the author describes ‘the faithful’ as meeting ‘by common consent in the Portico of Solomon’.  All still good Jews, at this stage, almost like another Jewish grouping or sect.  No one else dares to join them openly but their reputation is good, the numbers of believers increases, and there are many miracles, so people take their sick out of doors and place them where Peter’s shadow will fall across them so that they might be healed.  The psalm in response to this is still the Easter psalm (117/118), because we are still celebrating and everything is going well.  It is the second reading which darkens the mood slightly, as John introduces himself: ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’, but then moves on to describe Jesus appearing to him, telling him not to be afraid (as so often) and charging him to write down what he sees.  The Gospel, as I said earlier, is the story of Thomas  -and the end of John’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts.  The focus of the story is shifting.

3rd Sunday

This First Reading is only ten verses later, in the same chapter of Acts, but the clouds are gathering in our new story.  The high priest demands an explanation from these observant Jews with their inconvenient add-on doctrine.  Peter and the apostles have the chance to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, and this time they are released, but they have been warned again, and it’s clear that trouble is in the offing.  The psalm  (29/30) celebrates release from danger, acknowledging the reality of suffering (‘At night there are tears’) but showing an unshakeable faith in victory for the right side (‘but joy comes with dawn’), which is then shown in the celebration in the Second Reading (Revelation 5).

4th Sunday : the story develops

We leap forward several chapters this week to find Paul and Barnabas taking the story forward as they deliberately widen their appeal (Acts 13).  The Jews in Antioch mostly aren’t interested, even though Paul and Barnabas are still attending the synagogue religiously.  So they preach to the pagans, who are very happy to hear them, and are expelled from the town.  The answering psalm (99/100) makes us into the rejoicing pagans, hearing and accepting the word of God : ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock‘, and we stay with this sheep imagery, with the persecuted martyrs of the Second Reading being led by the Lamb, and the Gospel being part of Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd.  I couldn’t resist quoting Bach’s Sheep may safely graze in the accompaniment to the Alleluia verse because it was so apposite.

Banquet with sheep on table
The sheep/lamb metaphor made flesh at an Easter banquet
5th Sunday

Paul and Barnabas set off for Iconium at the end of last week’s reading, and they are already retracing their steps, heading for Antioch again.  This gives us a very clear idea of how the young churches were beginning to stand on their own feet.  Elders are appointed, the visitors encourage the locals to persevere in their efforts, and they move on again, going back to report to HQ – and, crucially, explaining how the mission has broadened to include those who weren’t Jews to start with, ‘the pagans’, people like us.  This has been a very successful trip, even though there are regular mentions of sufferings and hardships, and the psalm for this week (144/145) celebrates that success : ‘All your creatures shall thank you, O Lord’, not just some of them, and ‘Yours is an everlasting kingdom’.  The second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of Revelation (21 :1-5) describing the new Jerusalem, the establishment of this kingdom and the end of death and suffering.

Lady = Church scaring off dragon=Satan
the dragon being seen off by the lady in Revelation
6th Sunday : the next stage of the story

Now the question of whether you have to be a Jew as well as a Christian has come to a head, and there has to be a council of ‘the whole church’ to sort it out.  Here we see the Church operating as a Church, raising important questions, deliberating and discussing, and then making a judgment which is promulgated to the members.  We don’t have the discussion in this reading, but you can look it up, it’s all there in the text; here we have just the conclusion ‘decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves’ (note the order).  Earlier Peter has come to the same conclusion about God calling also the pagans, when he meets Cornelius after having his dream about the tablecloth (Acts 10ff).

engraving of Peter's vision
Peter, the angel, the tablecloth and all the different beasts

The psalm (66/67) emphasizes the universality, one might almost say catholicity, of the Church’s final decision :’the nations […] the peoples[…] the ends of the earth’ and the response beautifully endorses it :  ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you ‘ (my italics).  The second reading continues the description of the new Jerusalem, and the Gospel goes back to Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit and his own departure,  as we get ready for the Ascension.  But although the Lord is leaving the earth, we have seen that the Church, though still small and feeling its way, has the leadership it needs to continue the work it has been given.

Armenian kachqar with ornate cross
The cross sprouting new life from every corner

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Two underestimated apostles

A mixed group

The apostles are a fascinatingly mixed bunch, when you look at them closely. Some of what we think we know about them evaporates like morning mist when you actually investigate, which is what you would expect, as the first people to read the gospels might well have known them directly (so didn’t need much information). It’s the same difficulty that you encounter trying to sort out the women following Jesus, where all you get are scraps of information that work in a small community – so-and-so’s mother, or the person with that nickname, and so on.  But we do know that they included fishermen, a tax-collector, possibly a doctor and people who had been following John the Baptist;  so actually very mixed for such a small group.  And the carpenter’s son in charge, of course.

Most of the time they seem to have managed to get along with each other without trouble, even though the group was often under a lot of strain, with no fixed base, a leader who would not worry about the next day and would stop and talk to any unsuitable person just when everyone else was trying to move on. There’s the odd spat, between brothers, like James and John, probably a hangover from relations as little boys, possibly egged on by their mother who wasn’t sure that the Lord realised quite how exceptional her sons were (like any other mother, then).

Peter a man of authority, not a bumbler

Another pair of brothers among the apostles who don’t squabble, though, are Peter and Andrew.  I keep hearing sermons where Peter is chidden for putting his foot in it, for saying the wrong thing, for missing the point, but his own brother, who has known him all his life, defers to him; Jesus chose him; and he’s the one that the Lord leaves in charge of the brethren after he goes to heaven.  And I don’t think that this is because Peter is meant to encourage us all by being more hopeless than we are and still a saint, which is another ingenious theory I’ve been offered.  I think he is very often underestimated.

He gets so much absolutely right (‘Lord, to whom shall we go?’), and he stays faithful for longer than any of the other men, even making it into the Praesidium and loitering by the fire. His instinct is always to defend and protect Jesus (even against Jesus’ own ideas, ‘You shall never wash my feet’ ).  He is simple and direct, much easier to understand and much less given to boasting than Paul, and indeed, amazingly patient with Paul, who must often have been intensely irritating and wasn’t even there when the Lord was.  He is generous, humble and very lovable.  He must have told the others the stories which don’t reflect well on him, because often they take place when no-one else is there.  I don’t think anyone should underestimate or belittle Peter.

Thomas using his brain

The other apostle I think is underestimated and misconstrued is Thomas, and for most people he is defined by the story in the Gospel this week, where he has an unusually high-profile role.  He is starkly honest, and he’s not afraid to stand out against the group; he wants to know the truth, and when he does, the truth does indeed set him free.  People describe him as sceptical and hard-hearted, but I disagree.  Yes, Jesus says to him,’You believe in me because you have seen me….blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe,’, and yes, this is a pat on the back for us now, but the situation is different for Thomas.

He’s lived with the Lord for some time.  He knows he’s a real person.  He knows that he was cruelly killed, and he knows that all the other apostles have been hiding in the upper room afraid to go out, while Thomas has bravely gone out, maybe for supplies, and he knows they have all been fretting and panicking, so he wants some evidence.  Also, they still do not understand that Jesus is coming back, unlike us, reading this with the benefit of hindsight.  They are terrified, confused, bereaved and alone in a hostile society ready to turn on them.  Healthy scepticism is a sensible attitude.  God gave us our intelligence.  He expects us to use it.  We take off our shoes in the presence of the Almighty, we do not put our brains into neutral.

As soon as Thomas sees Jesus, however, his capitulation is total.  He does not ask to touch the wounds – that comment sounds to me like the final answer of a goaded man, after a week where everyone else has been trying to bully him.  As soon as he is directly convinced by a personal encounter, he simply says,’My Lord and my God’, and that’s it.

I admire these two men so much that it saddens me when people dismiss them as inept, stubborn or cowardly, and I think it’s a lazy reading of the narratives.  I paid them the biggest compliment I could: I named two of my sons after them.