by Br Julian McDonald cfc
Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them: “Peace be with you.” …Jesus said to Thomas: “Put your finger here and see my hands, and bring your hand and put it in my side, and do not be unbelieving, but believe.” John 20, 19-31
The Eighteenth-Century French historian and philosopher, Voltaire earned a reputation for his trenchant wit, and his biting criticism of the Catholic Church. Despite that, I have to admit to having a sneaking admiration for him. Like all of us, he had his faults, but also his good points. He was a keen observer of human behaviour and quick to assess the many contradictions of which we are all capable. On one occasion he observed: “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” (Complete Works of Voltaire, Volume 12, Part 1)
That, I suggest, is a suitable starting point to look at the apostle Thomas, one of the central figures of today’s gospel-reading. From our earliest years in religious education classes, we were taught that Thomas was a man lacking in faith, and, therefore, not to be imitated. That reputation attributed to him still survives in the label “doubting Thomas”, which is not applied to anyone as a compliment.
From looking at myself and at many of the other Catholics I have encountered, I have come to the conclusion that we Catholics are uncomfortable with doubt and with the fact that the journey to conversion is life-long. Somehow or other we expect our faith in God to be pristine pure, unwavering, neat and tidy, completely disinfected. We don’t like anything out of place when we gather to worship God at Mass. We are inclined to look askance at the weaknesses and failures of those around us, while we cover our own in secrecy. Somehow or other, we find it difficult to deal with open wounds. We are afraid that those we sit beside in the pews might reject us if they knew the kind of doubts, uncertainties and failures with which we struggle. We just can’t accept that all our parish communities are made up of fallible, fragile people who are all on the life-long journey to conversion of heart.
What appeals to me about Thomas is that he is courageous enough to acknowledge that doubt and uncertainty, the very things that frighten us, are part of his journey to faith. When we look closely at how he is described in the Gospels, we come to see him as a no-nonsense, practical person. In chapter 11 of his Gospel, John records Jesus expressing his intention to return to Judea at the news of the death of Lazarus. The response from the disciples was to urge him not to embark on what they regarded was a suicide mission: “Rabbi, it’s not long since the Jews wanted to stone you; are you going back there again?” (John 11, 8). With gallows humour, typical of a man who was a realist who reasoned that there was no point in arguing with Jesus, Thomas said to his companions: “Come on, let’s go. We may as well go and die with him” (John 11, 16). Then, when Jesus was in full flight giving his final discourse to the disciples, Thomas couldn’t cope with the description Jesus was giving of the place in the Father’s house he was going ahead to prepare for them. So, with a hint of frustration, Thomas interrupted: “Wait a minute, Jesus, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14, 5-6).
Before we look at the event that led to Thomas’ being labelled unfairly as a “doubter” for the last two thousand years, it might be worth considering why Thomas was absent from the group when Jesus appeared to the other disciples in the upper room. Remember that Mary Magdalen had already told the disciples that she had seen Jesus, and Peter and John had rushed to the tomb to check if she had been hallucinating. If they really believed her second story about actually encountering the risen Jesus, why did they continue to remain in hiding? Did they disbelieve her? Did they, as a group that was mainly male, subscribe to their culture’s view that women were unreliable witnesses? Maybe they accepted that Jesus was risen but could do nothing to protect them from those who had already executed him and were more than likely out to do the same to them? Perhaps the practical Thomas was the only one with enough sense to realise that they could be locked away for a lengthy period and would need food to sustain themselves. Somebody, then, had to do the shopping! If Mary Magdalen’s report of meeting the risen Jesus didn’t keep the disciples from hiding away, why should what the disciples told Thomas not be dismissed as illusionary? Thomas was no more a doubter than his close companions. And isn’t his doubt the same kind of doubt as we experience from time to time? Thomas wanted no other assurance than what Jesus gave his companions when he showed them his wounds and breathed peace upon them. But he dared to go a step further, insisting that he wanted to touch Jesus’ wounds to verify that he was encountering the crucified Jesus not just an illusion, an apparition or a ghost, demonstrating that he was, indeed, a practical man.
When Jesus appeared again in the upper room, Thomas was there, but received no rebuke. While Jesus invited him to touch his wounds, John makes no comment about whether or not Thomas did that. I am convinced that Thomas felt no need to do so. The interpersonal encounter was enough to confirm for him that Jesus was truly risen. What is more significant is that Thomas’ response “My Lord and My God” marks the climax of John’s Gospel. No other character in the Gospel had named Jesus as God. His act of faith has been the catalyst for two thousand years of theological exploration into what we now call Christology.
Thomas was courageous enough to insist on an experience of the risen Jesus that would satisfy him. He needed a personal interaction with Jesus. Clearly, Mary Magdalen’s experience of the risen Jesus was not something the other disciples had. They had only her account of what she experienced. A person’s account of any experience is not the same as the experience itself. Similarly, the other disciples could not experience the risen Jesus on behalf of Thomas.
Easter proclaims that Christ is risen and alive and active in our world. No amount of repeating that will reinforce our faith. Like Thomas and Mary Magdalen and all the other disciples we, too, must encounter the risen Christ. The only way in which we will encounter the risen Christ is in the people in whom he resides. As we honour and respect and reach out to everyone of our sisters and brothers in whose lives and hearts Jesus dwells, we will experience glimpses of the risen Christ. As we build relationships that are just, respectful, compassionate and caring we will encounter the risen Christ. As we take the risk of sharing our scars and wounds, our disappoints, failures and fragility, we will share with those around us something of the peace, compassion and life of the risen Christ alive in us.