by Br Julian McDonald cfc
When the disciples said: “We have seen the Lord,” Thomas answered: “Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands…I refuse to believe.” John 20, 19-31
One of our distinguishing characteristics as human beings is that we have a thirst for knowledge. When things puzzle and challenge us, we ask questions. When we can’t find answers, we become frustrated. Our thirst for knowledge becomes apparent early in life. We see evidence of it in little children who seek to satisfy their curiosity with endless “Daddy, why…?” questions. The history of scientific exploration and philosophical hypothesizing is peopled with inquirers from Socrates to Galileo, from Marie Curie to Rita Levi-Montalcini, from Charles Darwin to Einstein. These giants, and many others like them, have been driven in their search for answers to questions which only they had the intellectual acumen to formulate and the determination to pursue.
In his last book, published only after he died, the great mathematician, physicist and cosmologist, Stephen Hawking posed questions the answers to which may not be found this side of eternity. His opening question: Is there a God? is one that has been asked and explored ever since human beings have walked the earth (Brief Answers to the Big Questions, Bantam Books, NY 2018).
We all struggle with questions. Our inability to answer some of them with speed and certainty not only frustrates us, but confronts us with our limitations. Most of us struggle to fully accept our limitations and the reality that we belong to a limited species.
Thomas, one of the central figures of today’s gospel reading, is a character who is often misjudged for his apparent disbelief. I want to suggest that he is worthy of our admiration. He had seen and felt the fear, doubt and depression that had overwhelmed himself and his fellow disciples in the wake of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial. When he was confronted with the assertion that Jesus had risen and appeared to his companions, he did what most intelligent people would do. He asked them if they had let their imaginations run away with them or whether they had drunk too much in trying to drown their sorrows. Maybe he concluded that, out of desperate hope, the other disciples had become delusionary. He was not going to let himself be drawn in that direction. So, he was honest and open in stating that he was not prepared to accept an assertion that had no evidence to substantiate it. But he was punished for his honesty. Because he insisted on being given hard evidence, he found himself alienated by his friends, cut off from the group to which he thought he belonged.
But let’s not forget that John had already presented Thomas as a down-to-earth, plain-spoken man. When Jesus announced his intention to return to Bethany after receiving news of the death of his friend, Lazarus, all the disciples, except Thomas, tried to dissuade him, for it had been in Bethany that some Jews had tried to stone Jesus. Thomas, however, insisted that they not let Jesus go alone, even if that meant risking their own lives: “Let us also go to die with him” (John 11, 16). During Jesus’ long farewell speech, he was bold enough to interrupt, asking him to speak plainly, instead of talking in the kind of poetic and flowery language that he clearly found baffling. Jesus was saying: “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. . . where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” This was too much for Thomas, who interjected with: “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14,5)
A week after Thomas’ demand for convincing evidence of Jesus’ resurrection (and it must have been a long week for him), Jesus reappeared to the whole group. His first words were clear indication that he had neither isolated nor rejected Thomas. He simply invited him to set aside his doubts and believe. By making allowance for Thomas’ scepticism, the risen Jesus made it clear that he is open and ready to meet all of us, wherever we happen to find ourselves. The palpable irony of the story is that from the mouth of the man, who has subsequently been labelled as “doubting Thomas”, came one of the greatest expressions of faith: “My Lord and my God.”
While John put the focus on Thomas’ doubt, he glossed over the doubt of the other disciples. Even though Mary Magdalen had told them of her encounter with the risen Lord, all of them except Thomas stayed in hiding, while he, the practical one, might well have been out doing the shopping or even trying to verify what Mary Magdalen had claimed.
Yet, if we are honest, we have to admit that we, too, waver between faith and doubt, but come down eventually in favour of faith. In the course of our lives, we gain knowledge through direct experience, deduction or reasoning and through putting our faith in what others tell us. Social researchers point to the fact that more than 75% of our knowledge comes from accepting what others tell us. For example, if I go to a pharmacy searching for medication for an upset stomach, I accept the pharmacist’s recommendation or take as true the instructions for use and the description of possible side-effects printed on the package or bottle containing the medication I purchase. Whenever I board a plane, I take it on trust that the crew members are qualified to fly the plane. I don’t ask to see the captain’s flying licence. However, if we experience severe turbulence on a flight, we might catch ourselves questioning the competence of the captain. When we stop to reflect on an intangible reality like religion, most of us experience intellectual doubts from time to time. We catch ourselves wondering if the miracles in the Gospel actually happened. We have doubts about the divinity of Jesus and the existence of God. These days, we are aware of lots of Catholics doubting how a Church with a history of terrible sexual abuse can really be the Church that Jesus founded on Peter. And then there are our emotional doubts that come to the surface when tragedy and illness strike us or those we know and love. Those who have been faithful to their religious practice find themselves thinking that they are entitled to better treatment from a God who allegedly loves them.
Thomas wanted assurance and evidence. He also wanted Jesus and needed personal connection to dispel his doubts. While others can inspire and encourage us, they cannot give us their faith. The journey to faith in God and Jesus is ultimately personal and sometimes lonely. In today’s gospel we come to see that Mary could not experience the resurrected Jesus for the disciples, and the disciples couldn’t experience Jesus for Thomas. In the long run, we come to understand that it is faith, shaken at times by doubt, that keeps us on the path of searching for our own experience of Jesus. And we need the support of community to help us along that path. John’s Gospel spells out that the fundamentals of being a disciple of Jesus are faith and love. To grow into these is the journey of a lifetime. And we human beings will never achieve them perfectly.