Friday, July 3, 2009

Unless I Put My Finger In The Nailmarks And My Hand In His Side . . .

Thomas, who is called “the twin” (Dydimus, in Greek) is often referred to as “Doubting Thomas”. The impression is created that there is something wrong, perhaps even sinful, with being doubtful. But there is a more positive way of looking at doubt in the first place. The Greek astronomers who looked up at the sky and observed that most of the stars stayed in place, but others seemed to move around called the movable stars “planets” which means “wanderers”, because they seemed to wander around the earth, which was the center of the universe. Sometime later, other observers wondered if perhaps the earth traveled in an orbit around the sun, rather than the sun around the earth. Doubt is an element of curiosity; curiosity leads to inquiry; inquiry leads to discovery. And so it goes.

Thomas the Apostle was a thinker. His curiosity moved him to seek understanding and knowledge. Once, Jesus was talking about leaving his disciples, and said, “You know the way to where I am going.” Thomas interrupted, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so how can we know the way?” It was not disbelief that motivated the question, but curiosity. It was not a lack of confidence, since it was Thomas who said, when Jesus explained where he was going, “Let us also go with him, so that we might die with him.”

In this gospel, the problem starts on Easter morning, when Jesus appears to the disciples in the Upper Room, but Thomas is absent for reasons not explained in any of the four accounts. When he returns, the others tell him that Our Lord was alive, and that he had appeared to them. Thomas’ response is typical: “I am not going to take your word for it. I need to see for myself. Unless I put my finger into the place of the nails, and my hand into the wound in his side, I am not ready to believe.”

Thomas will have to wait until the first day of the following week (the day the Romans call Sunday). When Jesus appears, Thomas is present. The first order of business for the risen Savior is to call Thomas front and center. "Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe." Thomas’ response: “My Lord and my God!” And Jesus makes the point clear: Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." Thomas did not need to put his fingers and his hand into the wounds. The moral of the story is not “Touching is believing”, but “Seeing is believing.”

There is also a moral of the story for us, generations and centuries later. This gospel teaches us that we who cannot experience the physical confirmation of the resurrection of Jesus, are blessed for believing while not seeing.

Belief without doubt is not faith, but certitude. Compare the observations of the early astronomers with the story of creation in the book of Genesis. The former is science; the latter, revelation. The former seeks scientific certitude; the latter, religious faith. On the other hand, if we consider what has happened in astronomical observation from Archimedes to Copernicus and from Galileo to Hubble, it seems that there’s more faith than certainty in astronomy as well.

One last insight about Thomas is that he is the Apostle who insisted on closely inspecting the wounds of Jesus. Thomas, perhaps more than any of the other disciples, is able to face the atrocities of the suffering and death of Jesus, because of his “scientific” curiosity. In my youth, most of the altar crucifixes in the churches were more or less realistic in their portrayal of the wounds of Jesus. Gradually, over the decades, as old churches were refurbished and new churches were built, the trend changed, and the custom began to depict Christ the King, in priestly vestments, on – or suspended in air in front of – the cross. No blood, no sweat, no tears. The impression is given – or, at least, I have the impression – that people today are not comfortable with the notion that the sacrifice of Jesus the epitome of bloody sacrifice: blood in his sweat at Gethsemane; blood on his back and around his head at Pilate’s court; blood on his knees on the way to Calvary; blood from the place of the nails and from the lance wound in his side on the cross.

Do we, as Christ’s disciples, not have an obligation to take seriously the suffering of Jesus, the suffering in our world, and yet be willing to follow Jesus in spite of that pain – or are we cowardly in the face of the pain it might cause us to empathize with Him, and with others. Our temptation to ignore the agony of people in today’s world from war, poverty, disease, etc. etc. etc. For if we look honestly at these wounds, rather than turn our backs, we are duty bound to face the truth, and act accordingly.

We must, Saint Paul reminds us, die to ourselves and live for others if we would live with the Risen Savior in eternity. “If we have died with Christ … we will also live with him.” (Romans 6:8).

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