I have always felt bad for our friend St. Thomas, that is “Doubting Thomas.” After all, one moment of questioning ought not become that which characterizes you so completely that it names you such. Peter after all was not named “denying” but is instead known for being the “rock” upon which the Church is founded. Despite this setback in Thomas’ naming, and perhaps because of it, I am quite grateful for the witness of St. Thomas. For, in this moment of crisis, Thomas’ experience shows that God provides what was necessary for belief, and I trust that he will do the same for me.
Let’s step back and take a look at the whole event to understand why I think Thomas gets an undeservedly bad epithet. First off, while the idea that Christ, the Messiah, would rise from the dead is part of the common cultural knowledge within our Christian era, this was far from understood by anybody at the time of Christ. So, while we here the resurrection accounts as something quite familiar, and as such less impactful for those experiencing it, seeing Christ risen from the dead was a quite overwhelming experience. Thomas was not the first to doubt such experiences. The other apostles themselves doubted Mary Magdalen, for Mark relays that when Jesus appeared to “the eleven…he upraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen” (Mk 16:14 RSV). Given this doubt it makes sense that when Jesus appeared to the Apostles (minus Thomas) he showed them his hands and his side, to show to them that He had indeed risen from the dead.
When Thomas then hears what the apostles saw, he, like them, didn’t believe the account of Christ’s resurrection and demanded to see the very thing which had convinced the other apostles of the resurrection (i.e. the wounds in Christ’s hands and side). When we first here Thomas’ statement, “unless I see in his hand the print of the nails, and place my finger in the mark of the nails, and place my hand in his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:25 RSV), it sounds a bit harsh and bitter. It is hard to say with what note Thomas uttered these words.
However, I do think it is fair to say underlying his response, Thomas deeply desired that the other apostles were right in saying Christ had risen. Thomas, like the others, had given up everything to follow this man, Jesus, who had spoken so profoundly and had done such great miracles. To see the very man who had fed thousands, thirst in agony, cured the ill, bled from the many wounds, cast out demons, was tormented by the crowd, had raised the dead, died as a common criminal: such a sight must have been utterly devastating. As such, though Thomas may not have been able to accept the testimony of his fellow apostles, I cannot help but believe that he longed to do so.
Such longing, while less concrete, is no less present in our lives as well. All of us long for that which Christ provides—we long to be in an ever deepening relationship with him. Some, blessed by the gift of faith recognize this already and long for greater faith to enter more fully into this relationship. Others, experience that deep existential longing while unaware of what the object of that longing is. Still others, so distracted by business of the world are unable to recognize that there is a longing for something deeper in their lives. Most of us, bizarrely, manage to have aspects of all three of these levels of longing present simultaneously.
Thomas’ experience though does not only demonstrate our own longing, but God’s willingness to fulfill it. Thomas needed to see the wounds in order to receive faith in the resurrection. Responding to this need, Christ appeared to Thomas, showing him the wounds in his hands and his side.
Most of us are not so blessed as to understand exactly what it is we need in order to believe more fully. We may think we know what we need. We may even make such demands of God that seem to mirror the statement of Thomas, but often this is reflects a misunderstanding of our own needs and nature. Because we often fail to see what it is we truly need in order to have faith, God’s actions to fulfill that need are often less visible except, perhaps, in retrospect. As such, what Thomas’ coming to faith shows us has less to do with his demand for what he needs and more to do with God’s actions to fulfill that need. In turn, we need less to demand signs and actions, and, instead, be more open to the gifts God desires to give us that we might come to believe.
Finally, in receiving faith in the resurrection, this belief was utterly transformative. Already, Thomas had given up everything to follow Jesus, but this self-sacrifice was raised to ever greater heights with the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. Having been so transformed, Thomas left not only his home, not only the Israel, but the whole of the Roman Empire. Thomas journeyed all the way to modern day India to share what he had received from the Lord: the hope that death is not the end, but that Christ, by death, had conquered death, and that all who believe might follow Him through death to life eternal. So convicted in this belief was Thomas that he too followed Christ to death and is celebrated as reigning with Our Lord in heaven. While we may not be called to travel to India preaching the faith, we are called to be so transformed that, like Thomas, our whole lives are changed, wrapped up in the joy of the resurrection.