Poor Doubting Thomas

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.

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Cornelis Schut- The Resurrection of Christ

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.

Caravaggio_-_The_Incredulity_of_Saint_Thomas

Caravaggio- The Incredulity of Saint Thomas

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.

On Forgiveness

                During my formation, I spent a year working with Fr. Dan Barnett; it was a great blessing and I learned an incredible amount from him. One of his sayings has always struck me: “In a world without sin, there can be no forgiveness.” At a surface level this is pretty innocuous and straightforward statement: forgiveness necessarily follows sin, and if no one has sinned there is no need for anyone to be forgiven. It took me a while to realize the deeper significance of his statement. Sin and evil exist in the world whether or not we acknowledge it. However, when it goes unnamed we deny ourselves the tools of reconciliation. It is only through a broader recognition of sin, especially sin in our own lives that forgiveness becomes possible.

John’s account of the woman caught in adultery (John 8) bears this out beautifully. In an attempt to trap Christ in his two-fold mission: fulfillment of the law and the forgiveness of sins. St. Bede comments saying, “If [Jesus] determined that she was to be stoned, they would scoff at him inasmuch as he had forgotten the mercy that he was always teaching. If he prohibited the stoning, they would gnash their teeth at him, and, as they saw it, rightly condemn him as a doer of wicked deeds contrary to the law.”[1] In many ways it was a great trap: two apparent options either one leading to Christs downfall. Yet, by drawing upon his testers’ own guilt and sinfulness, he was able to negotiate a third way, show mercy while not negating the law.

Woman taken in adultery

            This event is a microcosm of the way in which God cultivates mercy and forgiveness in our own lives. When Peter asks Christ ““Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.” (Mt 18:21-22). Christ goes on to explain through parable of the unforgiving Servant. In this parable one servant, having been forgiven a great debt by his master, refuses to forgive a much smaller debt to his fellow servant. In so doing, this unforgiving servant forfeits his own forgiveness.

unmerciful servant

Willem Drost: the Unmerciful Servant

            Christ calls us to recognize the great debt incurred to God because of our sinfulness, and, having been forgiven that debt, to be forgiving in our own lives. We are to be so transformed by this forgiveness as to be judged by the very level of forgiveness that we mete out. Were we to contemplate our prayer a little more deeply we might hesitate to say, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I know that I am not perfectly forgiving in my life. Even those whom I desire to forgive, or have chosen to forgive, I sometimes find that I continue to resent in my heart. Fortunately, there is hope that the grace of God will continue to work in my life but will only do so with my cooperation.

            Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular is often criticized for making too much of sin and guilt. While, at times, excessive focus upon one’s own sinfulness can lead to despair, a recognition of one’s own sinfulness is necessary to truly appreciate the great gift of forgiveness that God extends to us. There are many opportunities to embark in such an exercise: at the beginning of nearly every Mass we “call to mind our sins so to prepare ourselves to celebrate these sacred mysteries.” We visit the sacrament of confession to make explicit our faults before Christ. At night, we examine our consciences asking God to forgive us our daily sins. All of these things help us to cultivate a greater sense, not simply of our sinfulness, but of God’s forgiveness. In seeing God’s forgiveness of us, in turn, we hopefully cultivate a greater forgiveness of others in our own lives.

            All that being said, I fully recognize that, while forgiveness is always necessary, true reconciliation, at least in this life, is not always possible. We as humans have the unfortunate capacity to rupture our relationships to such a degree that it is not always possible to repair in this life. Sometimes that is because one party or the other is unwilling to make the changes necessary. Sometimes both parties may be of good will but full reconciliation is simply beyond the scope of this life. In faith, such situations ought bring about two responses in us: sadness at the loss in this life and hope, that in the fullness of time God will heal all wounds and divisions.

            Our command to forgive as God forgives cannot be rightly understood as some mere practice that God has us engage in so as to prepare for heaven. Heaven is not the reward of a donut to small child who obeys himself at Mass. Rather, our call to forgive is intrinsic to the very nature of heaven. Without forgiveness how could we hope to spend eternity happy with somebody whom we cannot stand to spend ten minutes with now?

[1] Homilies on the Gospel I.25