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Doubting Thomas and Mercy

May 7, 2015


I have never been a fan of the “Doubting Thomas” designation.  I believe it makes light of a very real spiritual and emotional turmoil occurring within the life of the disciple and within countless people throughout history.  The term can lead one into the assumption that Thomas must have been a second-rate disciple if not even something worse.  But Thomas was not a second-rate disciple.  He was a man who had been hurt.  He was a man whose hopes had been crushed.  Thomas believed in Jesus.  He had followed Jesus and had made the decision to set his life by Jesus.  Now, Jesus had been killed – even dying the death of a common criminal.  The weight of the world’s sin, violence and injustice had crushed Thomas’ hope.  So Thomas says, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my fingers into the nail marks and put my hand into his side, I will not believe” (Jn 20:27).

Every Sunday in the Eucharistic Liturgy we profess the Nicene Creed.  We profess what we believe and hold true as Christians.  What Thomas says in the twentieth chapter of John’s gospel, “Unless I see the mark of the nails…” is, in fact, a non-creed that is professed by many people in our world today.  People who hold to this non-creed are not necessarily evil or bad people but they are people who have nevertheless turned in on themselves and who have become lost in their own pain and their own sensations.  They have become egocentric.  Thomas, at this moment in the gospel story, was focused inward and lost in himself precisely because of his pain and crushed hope.  Any person who has experienced intense pain, whether that be physical or emotional, can testify to how easy it is to become turned in on self.  So, even when the other disciples say that they have seen the Lord, Thomas does not believe because he is so imprisoned within.  Thomas cannot even entertain the possibility.  Non-creed may not lead to a publically professed unbelief as found in atheism but it does lead to a practical unbelief in a person’s life; which is an even more besetting sin of our age, I believe.    

The world is deeply wounded by sin and its effects.  There is hurt.  There is violence.  There is massive injustice and sin.  We all experience hurt and maybe we have even been the cause of hurt in another person’s life.  In the experience of sin (in whatever form) the temptation to turn in on self and shut the doors is always present and may even seem the most logical thing to do.  The danger is that lives turned inward can quickly devolve into fear-filled and violent lives.  The “other” can quickly become the “enemy” and a searing and isolating mistrust can settle in our hearts.  It is worthwhile to note that when our Lord appears to the disciples (both without Thomas present and then with him present) he passes through locked and shut doors and says, “Peace be with you.”  Through the resurrection there is now another way.  We do not have to live focused inward, behind locked and shut doors in fear and uncertainty!  We can know life and we can know peace!   

Jesus does not correct Thomas with a developed argument or a theological lesson.  It is by the showing of his wounds that Jesus answers the non-creed of Thomas.  This is how all non-creeds with their effect of practical unbelief in a person’s life are ultimately met and answered really.  The risen Lord shows Thomas the marks of evil on his own person which he still bears even in glory and by doing so he invites Thomas to turn away from self and be moved by both his own salvific wounds and, through them, the wounds of the least of Thomas’ brothers and sisters.  Thomas is moved, his heart is opened, and he makes that beautiful profession of faith, “My Lord and my God!”       

Bl. John Henry Newman coined the phrase, “Heart speaks to Heart” as the epitome of Christian evangelization.  Despite famous paintings to the contrary, the gospel does not really say if Thomas actually did reach out and touch the marks of Jesus’ wounds but we can say that in this encounter the heart of Jesus touched the wounded heart of Thomas in love and divine mercy.  The heart of Christ spoke the word of resurrection to Thomas’ heart!  The vision of divine mercy given to St. Faustina, as just celebrated on the second Sunday of Easter, is a revelation of the heart of Christ pouring forth love and mercy.  Standing before the resurrected Christ, Thomas receives this divine mercy in abundance and both his non-creed and unbelief evaporate in mercy’s light. 

Bl. Paul VI noted that our contemporary world cherishes witnesses over teachers.  To be an authentic witness to Christ in our modern world means to allow our hearts to be touched as was Thomas’.  To be an authentic witness means to trust in the resurrection and open the doors of our own hearts to the wounds of Christ and to the wounds of the least of our brothers and sisters … and to be willing to live the different way of the resurrection!   

Thomas’ non-creed is answered in the mercy of Christ but it goes further.  We are freed from self when we also learn the lesson of mercy and begin to live it.  In the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel our Lord gives a lesson which is about much more than social etiquette.  After instructing his listeners to take the lowest seat when invited to a wedding banquet and then saying that the one who exalts himself will be humbled and the one who humbles himself will be exalted, our Lord gives advice on whom to invite when one is giving one’s own banquet.

…do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relations or rich neighbors, in case they invite you back and so repay you.  No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind; then you will be blessed, for they have no means to repay you and so you will be repaid when the upright rise again”  (Lk. 14:12-14)

Our Lord is inviting us into the very dynamic of mercy itself!  Is this not what God has done for us in the resurrection of Christ?  God has invited us into the eternal banquet and we can never repay him!  “Now,” Christ says, “do likewise.  Live out this very reality of mercy and you will be blessed!  Live out this reality of mercy and you will live by a knowledge that the world cannot give because its origin is not of the world but of heaven!”  Divine mercy must be received and it must be lived.  The practical unbelief of non-creed can only be met and answered by authentic witness and by hearts that are open.

“My Lord and my God!” professed Thomas.

(For full disclosure, I must share that some of the thoughts expressed in this article have their origins in talks and reflections I have heard given at different times in the Community of Sant’Egido.)