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
Undeservedly, Thomas has received bad press. For close on two thousand years he has been referred to as “Doubting Thomas or, even worse, branded (perhaps unthinkingly) with the anti-semitic caption: “Thomas, the disbelieving Jew”. For no other reason than to restore his lost reputation, we ought revisit the circumstances that led to his being discredited. When Jesus was suddenly arrested, dragged through a kangaroo court, and summarily executed, Thomas experienced the very same loss, grief and trauma as had the other disciples. So, when they testified to having encountered the resurrected Jesus, he questioned their sanity and asked, without hesitation, if they were being delusional or showing symptoms of what we now call post-traumatic stress. To put it another way, if we look carefully at the Thomas we meet in today’s gospel reading, we will see ourselves. It was not by coincidence that John tells us that Thomas was also known as Didymus, meaning the twin (John 11, 16; 20, 24; 21, 2). Each of us is his twin for, if we are honest, we, too, will acknowledge that we struggle with unquestioning belief in Jesus’ resurrection. We would like the comfort of divine reassurance. But that is simply not available. In all four gospels, it emerges that all the disciples struggled to make meaning of the various encounters they had had with the risen Jesus. It was only after several appearances and repeated reassurances from Jesus himself that they grew into accepting that he had truly risen. While today’s gospel reading suggests that Thomas was the exception when it came to believing, he was certainly not the only one who struggled with the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.
However, John’s Gospel is the only one that refers to the Holy Spirit coming on the disciples on that first resurrection evening. This is entirely consistent with John’s theology – that Jesus’ resurrection heralded and brought about a new creation for humanity. When John describes Jesus as breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, he is clearly making reference to the Genesis story in which we are told how God created man and woman by breathing life into them (Genesis 2, 7). In John’s mind, humanity is recreated as the Risen Jesus breathes God’s Spirit into the disciples on that first Easter night.
Moreover, the peace that Jesus breathes at Easter into all of us (successors of the disciples) empowers us to come out of the “tombs” in which we so easily bury ourselves through pettiness, bickering, hostility and alienating others by ignoring and insulting them. It really is ourselves whom we punish when we choose to go into sullen silence and separate ourselves from those around us. In extending peace to the very people who had deserted him when he most needed their support, Jesus reaches out in unspoken forgiveness. But he goes even further by commissioning them to offer the same kind of forgiveness to one another and to those around them. In so doing, he gives them an essential tool for nourishing group and community living. That was an object lesson for John’s own emerging community for whom he wrote his Gospel. And surely one for us as well.
Just as Jesus’ greeting of peace was another way of telling his disciples that all was forgiven, so, too, was Thomas’s profession of faith (“My Lord and my God”) an apology for his doubt and questioning. John’s point, of course, in relating this incident is to affirm the faith of all of us who sometimes waver in our faith but who continue to hang in without tangible proof. Again, this story was meant by John to be an expression of affirmation and encouragement to his early Christian community and, by extension, to all of us. In John’s theology, this is a clear statement that the power of Jesus’ resurrection reaches beyond the limits of time and space.
Modern theologians draw our attention to the fact that Jesus’ crucifixion continues so long as his sisters and brothers are neglected, treated with injustice, rejected, tortured and murdered. The crucifixion of Jesus is incomplete so long as women, men and children are treated as less than human. All over the world, countless refugees and seekers of asylum live in fear and uncertainty as they wait their turn to try to convince immigration officials of the danger that awaits them if they are returned to their countries of origin. Often, the only real evidence they have is their own scarred bodies. Their repeated plea is: “Put your finger here into my wound and see my hands. Do not doubt, but believe.”
Yet so many of these brothers and sisters of ours evidence glimpses of hope amid despair, by using meagre resources to create artifacts and their language skills to write poetry and story – all in an attempt to catch the attention of a world that has forgotten them. Their initiatives are brave statements that they refuse to be cowed, to be objectified by pity and dehumanized by being labelled as criminals. In so behaving, they hold out life to one another, and, even though they live on the borders of despair, they nourish hope in one another.
Their plight is real. They struggle to eke out an existence in refugee camps in Turkey and the Lebanon, in urban detention centres like Villawood, Australia, in Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, in shelters in Lampedusa and in holding pens in Tijuana.
Today’s gospel reading challenges us with questions which only we can answer: Do we need to put our fingers into the wounds of our own sisters and brothers? And, if we can cross the divide from doubt to belief, are we prepared to do something practical by way of breathing peace and life and love into them?