Atmospheric and Earthly Christ – Carmen Retzlaff reflects on imagery of sky and solidity in the Easter 2 texts.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Revised Common Lectionary
Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year C (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022, 2025)
Psalm 118:14-29 or Psalm 150
The Easter readings give us a time to read stories from the early church in Acts of the Apostles and images of the final days in Revelation alongside the strange and intriguing stories of Jesus’ appearances to his disciples after his death. In the readings for the second Sunday after Easter in Year C, we hear in John 20 of Jesus suddenly presence in a room with locked doors. This ethereal appearance is paired with references to the firmament and the clouds, allowing for an eco-theological reflection on the atmosphere in relation to the touchable reality of Thomas’ experience with the risen Christ.
The concept of the firmament is sometimes difficult to grasp. The alternate Psalm for this Sunday is Psalm 150, the final Psalm of the psalter, which beings by connecting God’s sanctuary with God’s firmament.
Praise the LORD! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! (Ps 150:1)
Firmament is also translated as dome: in the Genesis creation story, it is God’s division of the waters above and the waters below on the second day (Genesis 1:6-8). This container, the earth’s atmosphere, the protective bubble in which we live. How wonderful to consider this God’s sanctuary, in which we give praise. Robert Alter, in his commentary on this line, writes “There is a harmonious concordance between the ‘holy place’—the temple below and the heavens above—both conceived as sites of God’s habitation” (Robert Alter, The Book of Psalms: A Translation With Commentary. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007, p. 515).
Set against the famous and familiar Thomas story, the firmament provides a counter point to the need to touch and see to believe. The atmosphere sustains us, though most of the time we do not see it, and the air we breathe is usually invisible to us. Appearing “from thin air,” the resurrected Christ bridges the boundaries of solid and insubstantial, visible and unseen. In our atmosphere, we see water moving between phases of solid, liquid and gas. Christ here reflects that nature.
In the Revelation reading, out of God’s firmament sanctuary comes Jesus in the last days, riding on clouds. “Look, he is coming with the clouds,” writes John the visionary in his opening to our Bible’s final book (Revelation 1:7). Many of us hear in this phrase youth campers and gospel choirs singing, “Behold he comes, riding on the clouds,” from the popular Christian song “Days of Elijah,” by Irish songwriter Robin Mark. From the sanctuary of God comes the Christ, riding the insubstantial but visible waters of the firmament.
In the reading from Acts, Peter reminds his accusers that “The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree,” (Acts 5:30) bringing us again to the visible natural connection with the Christ, killed on a touchable tree. Trees, of course, contribute oxygen to the invisible air, and take moisture and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, again exhibiting the natural and Christ-like pattern of nature, making the invisible elements solid, touchable—and in this case able to be used by humans as instruments of torture. The story of Jesus mirrors the movement of the elements in nature between solid and ethereal – taking the unseen and making it tangible, transforming between phases of being. Showing the unity of all things, beyond our knowing, yet clear in our experience of creation. Pastor, philosopher and modern mystic Howard Thurman wrote,
“The literal fact of the underlying unity of life seems to be established beyond doubt. It manifests itself in the basic structural patterns of nature and provides the precious clue to the investigation and interpretation of the external world of man. At any point in time or space one may come upon the door that opens into the central place where the building blocks of existence are always being manufactured. True, man has not been able to decipher all the codes in their highly complex variations, but he is ever on the scent”(Howard Thurman, Disciplines of the Spirit. New York: Harper & Row, 1977, p. 104).
The oxygen we need is not visible in our air, but it is there. The pollution of our atmosphere by dangerous chemicals is not always visible, but we must believe it is there in order to act to care for and repair the damage we cause. After Thomas sees Jesus and confesses his faith, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (John 20:29). In 2018, the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite of the European Space Agency began to send high resolution maps of air polluting gases that are invisible to the human eye (United Nations Environment Programme, Nov. 7, 2018. “Invisible air polluting gases revealed by satellite imagery,” https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/story/invisible-air-polluting-gases-revealed-satellite-imagery). We could see in maps cities and parts of cities where power plants and traffic created plumes of pollutants. These images did help the public believe the extent and reality of greenhouse gas pollution. In 2020 Copernicus also visually illustration reduced pollution levels in Italy during the COVID-19 lockdown (March 13, 2020. Copernicus: Europe’s Eyes on Earth, “Coronavirus: Copernicus Sentinel-5P reveals nitrogen dioxide drop over Italy,” https://www.copernicus.eu/en/news/news/coronavirus-copernicus-sentinel-5p-reveals-nitrogen-dioxide-emissions-drop-over-italy). We are blessed when we do not see, and yet believe. Scientists tell us, but there is something about seeing it for ourselves that makes it more real.
And it is important to Thomas and to all of us to know that the physical reality of Jesus makes the incarnation and resurrection true. Lutheran theologian Vitor Westhelle stressed the importance of God fully and actually present, not just spiritually, not just in heaven, but in the physical world.
“Luther and the authors of the Confessions distinguished three modes of Christ’s presence. The first was called the corporal mode, referring to Jesus of Nazareth in his historical existence. The second is called the spiritual mode, as when Christ can enter any reality without vacating space, as when he came out of the tomb or walked through close doors…The third mode of presence, called the heavenly mode, is the one in which Christ, by sharing God’s infinity and omnipresence is “far, far beyond things created, as far as God transcends them”…The consequence is that although the corporeal mode of Christ’s presence is limited in time and space, Christ’s embodiment (“even according to his humanity”) is not limited to the corporeal mode of presence in Jesus of Nazareth. christ is everywhere, closer to everything created that these things are to themselves. God’s embodiment through Christ encompasses the world” (Vitor Westhelle, The Scandalous God: The Use and Abuse of the Cross. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006, pp. 28-29).
In confirming the physical presence of Jesus who materialized in the room, Thomas confirms the Christ in all creation. The appearance of Christ among his friends in a particular room on a particular night is somehow also the God of all time and space whose temple is the dome of the sky and whose mode of transport is on the clouds of water vapor. As in the poetry of the Psalms, and the poetic books of Revelation and the Gospel of John, we look to poets to describe the connections between Christ and cosmos, particular and universal, one room and the firmament, ourselves and all the earth. In poetry and in the creation around us, we look for, and reach out to touch, the same truth that Thomas sought.
“The dark around us, come,
Let us meet here together,
Members of one another
Here in our holy room,
Here on our little floor,
Here in the daylight sky,
Rejoicing mind and eye,
Rejoicing known and knower,
Light, leaf, foot, hand, and wing,
Such order as we know,
One household high and low,
And all the earth shall sing.”
(Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press, 1998, p.52.)
Theologian George “Tink” Tinker notes that the Gospel of John allows for an image of connectedness between the Christ and the Creator that allows room for Native American views of the centrality of the Creation story as the basis of all faith and life, including Jesus but not starting with a confession of the singularity of one view of the Jesus story.
“The restoration of trinitarian balance in the euro-christian theology requires a strong and well-articulated affirmation of the priority of the fist articles of the ecumenical creeds…We will discover that respect for creation can come the spiritual and theological basis for justice and peace just as it is the spiritual and theological basis for God’s reconciling actin Christ and the online life of sanctification in the Holy Spirit” (George E. Tinker, American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008, p. 38).
“If the Logos or the Christ is merely that aspect of God that communicates creativity and healing or salvation to human beings, then we can even add to Christianity’s knowledge of salvation from our own experiences and memories of God’s functioning among Indian communities throughout our history. In this sense, we can claim to have a history of many such experiences of the Christ and can even begin to name some of them and tell the stories that go with the naming” (Tinker, p. 106).
As John the evangelist moves from the Logos present at creation to the Christ in the flesh whom Thomas meets, these text connecting a vision of Christ riding the clouds invites an expansive view of the saving and healing act of Jesus as he meets his friend in the upper room to reassure him of the reality of his presence.
Originally written by Carmen Retzlaff in 2022.