by Br Julian McDonald cfc

“Peace be with you: As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” And when he said this, he breathed upon them and said to them: “Receive the Holy Spirit…” Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it into my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20: 10-31

Today’s gospel-reading invites us to reflect on faith, fear and forgiveness, experiences that are part of our day-to-day lives and with which we all struggle in one way or another. Perhaps it’s only in the context of our religious living that we struggle with faith because we repeatedly put faith in other people almost without thinking. Every time we take public transport, we unquestioningly put our faith in the driver or pilot without asking to see his or her licence as proof of his or her being qualified to operate the vehicle or plane we have boarded. When we visit a doctor or are admitted to hospital for surgery, we don’t ask for proof of qualification. We believe that radio and television newsreaders give us factual accounts of world and local events and accurate football and basketball scores. We spend a large percentage of our daily lives trusting the information given to us by professionals, scientists, teachers and shop-assistants. Life for us would come to a standstill if we stopped believing that things are as others tell us they are. But that does not mean that we don’t have doubts, or question some of the things that others put to us as certainties. We are quick to dismiss the predictions of doomsday prophets who tell us that the world will end next Tuesday. And we admire the wisdom of people like the French cynic and satirist Voltaire, who once asserted: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd!” (The Complete Works of Voltaire, Volume 12, Part 1)
I recently attended a reunion of ex-students of the school to which I was first appointed. I came away in admiration of how these now mature men have supported and encouraged one another over decades, through the ups and downs of their lives. Friendships forged in school days have matured and been nurtured, and have found expression in practical support of one another in times of family celebrations, personal difficulty, illness of family members and at times of grief and loss. The relationships we forge with one another help us to shape our own identity. Friendships that grow out of shared memories and are nurtured and built on trust, generous acceptance and encouragement build community and enrich the lives of those who belong to it. Communities of faith, including parish communities, are built on shared experiences and a shared memory of, and faith in, the person of Jesus. And that’s where today’s gospel-reading fits in. That reading is very pertinent for us as we confront some of the fears we experience, and summon the courage to reach out in forgiveness to one another.
This gospel-reading includess John’s account of two of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances to his disciples. When we stop to think about the experience Jesus’ disciples were going through, it is no wonder they were afraid. The Resurrection of Jesus was a unique happening. Nobody who was brutally tortured and executed had ever been raised to life. Initially, when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, they thought they were in the presence of a ghost. Is there anything more frightening than such a para-normal experience? While Jesus’ greeting to them was “Peace be with you!”, we all know that words like “Don’t worry!” and “Don’t be afraid!” though meant to be comforting, don’t make worry and fear vanish. Moreover, this greeting from the leader they had either betrayed or deserted in his darkest hour was probably totally unexpected by members of a group who must have been burdened with guilt, regret and embarrassment. And the one whom they had deserted was now back from the dead and saying to them: “All is forgiven!” Moreover, he made no mention of the grief and disappointment they had caused him. In due course, he showed them his wounds, but only as physical evidence of the death he had rendered powerless.
Jesus repeated his greeting of “Peace be with you” twice more, reassuring his disciples that they were forgiven, and that he had no intention of reprimanding them. Instead of stating that the disciples must have been very relieved by Jesus’ greeting, John simply says that “they rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” Jesus’ insistence on wishing them peace not only spoke to them a message of forgiveness but assured them that they no longer had any reason to be afraid of the Romans, Pilate. or their religious leaders who had been responsible for his death. Moreover, in forgiving them, he was demonstrating the mission of forgiveness that he wanted them to take to the world. Forgiveness is central to the message of the Gospel. Integral to the outreach Jesus conducted in curing the poor, the lame and the afflicted were his oft repeated words of comfort: “Your sins are forgiven.” On that first day of the new creation, Jesus breathed not only forgiveness on his disciples but freedom from the guilt and fear that imprisoned them. He breathed on them the Spirit of new life.
The locked doors behind which the disciples thought they had secured themselves and the darkness of the night on which Jesus penetrated the walls of the locked room were John’s symbols for the darkness, the fear and the fortress-like guilt that were holding them emotionally imprisoned. Jesus set them free by breaking through what had physically and emotionally held them bound. To live free of what had imprisoned them, to open themselves to be forgiven and to then, in turn, hold out forgiveness to the world to which Jesus was missioning them would be every bit as painful as being born again, something to which Jesus had earlier referred when he had first engaged with Nicodemus.
John attributed to Thomas the name Didymus (twin) because Thomas is a twin to all of us would-be disciples. From the greatest to the least, despite being baptized, we all have weakness, human frailty and sinful failure. We all have doubts about the closeness and love of God. At times we doubt whether God really hears our prayers. In fact, faith without doubt is really something of a myth. St John of the Cross, St Teresa of Kolkata and the Jesuit poet, Gerard Manly Hopkins all wrote about the doubt in God that they had experienced. Our faith eventually deepens through our struggles with doubt. In finding the courage to express his doubt, Thomas was inviting us not to be afraid of voicing ours.
The risen Jesus greeted his disciples three times with an expression of peace and forgiveness. In today’s gospel-reading, the wounded, risen Christ deliberately pointed twice to the scars that were a residue of his passion, He was thereby reminding them that they could not walk in his footsteps without opposition and struggle. As a consequence, they would bear emotional and, even, physical scars.
You may have noticed that the gospel-reading for the second Sunday of Easter is the same for Years A, B and C in the liturgical calendar. That’s because this particular Sunday is also listed in the calendar as Divine Mercy Sunday. Jesus’ greeting of Peace and forgiveness to his disciples was the ultimate expression of divine mercy. Ten years ago, Pope Francis sent a message to the universal Christian community, inviting us all to open ourselves in our sinfulness to the mercy, love and forgiveness of God in order, in our turn, to reach out credibly in forgiveness to our broken world. Pope Francis explained that by showing his wounds to his disciples, the risen Jesus was inviting all Christians to set aside their fear of confronting the wounds of our world and its people, trusting that the love of God, made visible in the risen Christ. is more powerful than the evil that is let loose in our world.
May the peace that Jesus promised his disciples at the Last Supper overflow into the lives of each one of us disciples.