Father Nicholas Lang
Diagnosis: New Normal - Sermon preached by Jennifer Hudson
Around the beginning of 2016, I started experiencing some strange symptoms which had me a bit worried. As though I had been injected with adrenaline, I was getting heart palpitations, extreme shakiness and hand tremors. Nights were sleepless. I chalked it up to a bad case of anxiety, but the symptoms persisted for months and got progressively worse. I was sent to a cardiologist and underwent several tests. My heart checked out fine. However, more unusual symptoms developed. I experienced frequent moments of brain fog. My hair got dry. I lost a good deal of weight. There were aches in my joints and my eyelids would swell like inflatable tubes. More visits to specialists. Again, their tests showed nothing. By now, my throat began feeling like knives were attacking it. Three times I was tested for strep. Three times the results were negative.
Doctors could find no answer for my “vague” symptoms. They treated me as though what I was experiencing was just the byproduct of my imagination. It was beyond frustrating being shipped from specialist to specialist only to be told there was nothing medically wrong with me. Yet I knew something was off. I knew none of what I was experiencing was normal. I knew how to listen to my body. There has to be an answer, I told myself. However, I feared that that answer, because it had not yet been found, might be something dire.
Blood work revealed something interesting. I wish it had been detected before I endured years of medical gaslighting. Anti-thyroid peroxidase antibodies were present in my blood. This meant my immune system was seeing my thyroid gland as a threat and was trying to destroy it. In the process of being attacked, my thyroid was leaking excess thyroid hormone into my bloodstream, which accounted for my symptoms. The condition is known medically as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder. We often don’t think of a diagnosis being good news, but in this instance it was. It meant that what I had been experiencing was not imagined; it was real. There was tangible proof and certainty of a condition, and it was not as grave as I had feared; it just meant I had to adapt to a new normal.
We often tend to think the worst in the face of the unknown. We want answers. We want things to make sense. We want reassurance. We want certainty.
The disciples have none of these in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion and death. They are bereft. Their beloved teacher is gone. It makes very little sense that he was arrested and then unjustly and brutally executed. Moreover, if Jesus was persecuted for living the way of love that he taught them, then they might face a similar fate. Fearful of what looks like a bleak future ahead, they remain locked in a room. There does not seem to be any good news.
Then the resurrected Jesus comes and stands among the disciples: showing his hands and side, showing the Good News of resurrection, blessing them with peace and the breath of the Holy Spirit. How they must have (after their initial bewilderment) rejoiced, felt reassured, and gained new confidence.
Thomas is not present for the event, and when the other disciples tell him what happened in that room, he demands a visual and tactile experience of the Risen Jesus. He wants proof that it is not just some group hallucination. I don’t blame Thomas for not wanting to be gas lit by his peers.
Thomas is often regarded negatively for craving a physical experience that confirms or reveals the spiritual. However, isn’t it through visual and tactile experiences that we come to know the sacred? After all, we live in a physical reality.
But resurrection is something that’s hard for our brains to compute. Death is finite in our physical reality; it is the ultimate diagnosis of which we can be sure. And when death robs us bodily of a loved one, we would give anything to see and touch that person again. In Thomas’ defense, the demand for visual and tactile proof of a supernatural occurrence indicates not only the level of his grief (even anger) following the death of Jesus, but also his strong desire to experience something of Jesus again, to have the spiritual manifest in the material.
As the Rev. Carole Horton-Howe puts it in one of her sermons on Doubting Thomas, “If we think of Thomas as a model for a certain way of believing then he is a follower who craves intimacy with Jesus. And how did Jesus respond? Jesus’ invitation was to touch, not just look and certainly not to belittle Thomas or deny him that intimacy craved. Jesus sets for the disciples and for us the example of generosity by his offer of touch.”
Physical touch, when welcomed, can be a very sacred, grace-filled experience that reveals the divine present in the material. Touch can comfort, providing evidence that we are cared for and understood. Hugging, especially, is thought to release the hormone oxytocin. Also known as the “cuddle” or “love hormone,” researchers are taking a look at the role it plays in healing and feeling connected with others. Hugs are the first thing we desire from others when we grieve because we need reassurance that everything will be OK. We crave a feeling of connection in someone’s absence. Thomas, arguably, just wants to feel connected to Jesus again because he wants to feel something of the grace and peace he did in Jesus’ presence.
Remember when the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic struck three years ago and we could not touch? We were not unlike Thomas and the other disciples. We sheltered in place because friends and loved ones were dying from this new disease. We could not gather, not even to pray or mourn together. Zoom could not replace the warmth or intimacy of a hug. Our oxytocin levels decreased. Depression settled in for many of us.
We thought the worst in March 2020. We were fearful in the face of an uncertain future. We could not see how the pandemic was going to play out or when vaccines would be available. We had no answers and no sense of direction, other than that provided by the CDC. Death and illness were the only certainty. There did not seem to be any good news. Collectively, that time was like a long, drawn-out Good Friday. But once the vaccines rolled out, we slowly started returning to some semblance of normal. Yet it was, and still is, a new normal.
That’s what Jesus presents to Thomas and the other disciples. A new normal. Things are not exactly the same as they were: for Jesus, for the disciples, for us. Jesus’ wounds remain, but he has transcended them. He shows his wounds, even invites Thomas to touch them, in order to touch something eternal in us, to provide the reassurance that endings are not the final say. New beginnings and transformation always follow an ending because love is infinite and rises above the finite.
Jesus’ diagnosis for us, then, is this: no matter how dire or bleak things seem, we can, with God’s help, always find or create some good out of it. God resurrects our lives into newness. Of that we can be sure.